In the FRIDAY THE 13TH legal battle, the only losers are the fans
Legal disputes in the movie business are pretty common––we will never hear or care about most of them and they don't really impact us in the long term. However, there is one legal battle that has just taken a fresh swipe at its fans and stirred up a lot of animosity among them and towards one individual in particular.
On June 11th Gun Media, creators of the popular Friday the 13th: The Game released a statement citing that due to the legal battle between Victor Miller (the screenwriter for the original Friday the 13th film) and Sean Cunningham and Horror Inc., they are unable to release any new content for the game which would include the highly anticipated "Uber Jason": new maps, emotes, kill packs, and counsellors. This created an angry backlash from fans of the game on social media with a minority threatening violence against the 78-year-old Miller, which was quickly condemned by Gun Media and most of the fans.
So what is the story behind the legal action? Well it all stems from the screenplay from the original film, and his legal right to make a claim for his work under a change in copyright law Congress made in 1976. This law basically allows people to cancel rights hand offs after 35 years (this was bought in to allow musicians to take back the rights to their songs and other art they created), which would then potentially allow him to license the franchise to other studios. However, in August 2016 Producers Horror Inc. and Manny Company filed a lawsuit against Miller citing the exception in the law that Miller's screenplay was a "work made for hire" which means that a piece of work that is prepared by an employee which is under the scope of their terms of employment, the employer is classed as the statutory author. This is what Horror Inc. and Manny Company are claiming in the development of the original film, as Cunningham states he worked with his friend Miller to develop ideas for the film, and in turn Miller received a lump sum payment (around $9,500).
But Miller's attorney Marc Toberoff, who has contested copyright termination battles previously for Superman and Lassie, said in a statement that "While the screenplay was clearly commissioned by Manny for use as part of a motion picture, the Film, Plantiff never alleges that a written instrument signed by Manny agreeing the Screenplay shall be considered a 'work made for hire'. And the agreement attached to the Complaint, and alleged by Plaintiffs to be Miller's operative agreement, does not contain any such express agreement, nor even the phrase 'work made for hire' or 'work for hire'."
In laymen terms: Miller says he was never supposed to be a 'work for hire' writer, and the production companies say he was. If he is successful then he would retain the right to Pamela Voorhees, child Jason, Crazt Ralph, and others from the original film which could be worked into a franchise of its own (e.g. Camp Crystal Lake). But what it could also mean is Horror Inc. continue to make films with the Friday the 13th moniker but they could only be shown outside the U.S.A.
Now as I live in England, this is OK for me––but what about all the die hard fans that don't live outside of America? Why should they miss out due to a legal dispute from something that happened in the 70s? We have already had t put up with no new films being released and now twe can't have any new content for the game that let us either be Jason or a Counsellor escaping him. The fans are what made the franchise a success and now we are the children in the divorce, left feeling angry and unloved as the grownups squabble over the details of who gets what.
The risk of this case is that no matter what happens, there is always going to be a bad taste left in our mouths, due to the fact that we are being treated as an afterthought and teams like Gun Media are having to deal with the frustration head on. While they have appealed for the abuse towards Miller to stop, they can't help but feel slightly aggrieved that the game they got funded on Kickstarter (which turned into the third most downloaded game in 2017 on Playstation 4) has been forced to stop the new content that they were so close to giving the fans and had already announced. Not only are Gun Media the developers of the game, they are also fans that brought a vision to life, and had it stopped in its tracks by no fault of their own. And the players who paid their money for the game are left angry that due to this, they will not get what was promised, and for some it is much more than a game to them. They have formed friendships and relationships that go beyond the game, while some have spoke about how the game has helped them through dark times personally and the thought of the game going fills them with dread and anxiety. The community around the game and films is waiting to see what happens with the outcome and feel as though they are the ones who will lose out in the short term and possibly the long term.
No matter what happens and whoever gets the rights, they need to pay special attention to the fans, as they will be the ones who decide whether the new installments in the series succeed or fail, and a lot of care has to go in to how they are treated––because you can only anger people so much until they turn their back and take their money with them.