When up-and-coming “mini-major” film studio Relativity Media went bankrupt last year, it caused some weird ripples to pass through the entertainment industry. Many of those knock-on effects hit home at Netflix, which made headlines in 2010—back before “sticking all your movies on the internet for the plebes at home to stream” was something established studios like Disney would dream of doing—when it signed a massive deal giving it access to Relativity’s crop of movies as soon as they exited theaters (in lieu of appearing on premium cable). Of course, Netflix can’t stream said movies if Relativity doesn’t actually release them. At least, that’s the ruling made by a U.S. bankruptcy judge this week.
The current legal battleground between the two media companies is Jared Hess’ bank robbery comedy Masterminds, which stars Zach Galifianakis and Kristen Wiig and was originally due out in August of last year. It’s since been bounced around repeatedly on Relativity’s schedule, as the company first went Chapter 11, and then began an extensive reorganization under CEO Ryan Kavanaugh. Masterminds is now scheduled for September 2016, which would be all well and good, except that Netflix’s pre-planned start date for streaming the movie didn’t move around with it, and the service is now gearing up to air the film online three months before it’ll arrive in theaters.
Given that we’re talking about a multi-million dollar fight over who has first dibs on a movie from the man that brought the world Gentlemen Broncos, legal speculation has run rampant about Netflix’s motives for this latest aggressive move. For his own part, Netflix head honcho Ted Sarandos claims that the company is simply hard-up for non-original content it can stream, apparently ignoring the fact that they just dropped two new seasons of Cutthroat Kitchen on there, like, a month ago.
But Relativity’s lawyers have claimed that the streaming plan is indicative of efforts by Netflix—whose often-secretive deal structures with content providers have been somewhat illuminated by this ongoing legal fight—to play hardball and force Relativity to break the contract themselves, lest the box office potential of the already-filmed Masterminds (and a horror movie, The Disappointments Room) be tainted by an early release.
That’s apparently the read on the situation by U.S. Judge Michael Wiles, who issued a ruling this week that blocks Netflix from going ahead with its Masterminds streaming plan. (Relativity is expecting to bring in a badly needed $200 million with these two films, so Netflix’s move would take a hammer to the company’s efforts to pay off its lenders and get back on its feet.)
In other news, Hess’ last movie, Don Verdean, came out in theaters without a hitch, and people cared about it for exactly as long as it took to burn the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes entry to the ground. So, hey! Maybe getting used as a high-profile legal football for a while isn’t the worst thing that could happen to Masterminds, after all.