If there’s one rule in Hollywood, it’s that nothing is sacred. Ever. But does that creative license extend to business contracts? That’s what one writer aims to find out with a lawsuit that could have a lasting impact for authors everywhere.
In 1999, author Tess Gerritsen sold the rights to her book (and New York Times bestseller), Gravity, to New Line Productions. The book, a medical suspense/science fiction novel, tells the story of a young female doctor who is left stranded aboard the International Space Station when a deadly microbe gets loose, affecting the whole ISS.
While the book’s story line at first appears to match up with Warner Bros.’ film, Gravity, in title and “lonely woman scientist in space” concept only, it’s what happened once Gerritsen sold the rights to New Line that has left her uniquely positioned to sue.
As Gerritsen explains in her blog, while the film was in development with the studio, she rewrote the third act of the film script with “scenes of satellite debris destroying ISS and the lone surviving female astronaut adrift in her spacesuit.”
Hmm, a female astronaut adrift in space while debris destroys the international space station, you say? Anyone not immediately picturing Sandra Bullock as the scientist in that scenario has been hiding from Hollywood for far too long and needs to get back in the film game STAT.
Here’s what you need to know about what happened next and why it matters:
Contract? What contract?
Gerritsen’s contract with New Line stated that she would receive “based upon” credit plus a production bonus and a percentage of net profits if the film ever got made. (This was all happening in the early aughts, several years before Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity was written.)
Gerritsen’s adaptation never made it out of development, however, and in 2008, Warner Bros. acquired New Line Productions, shedding several New Line employees in the process.
By purchasing New Line, Warner Bros. also gained control of New Line’s acquisitions, giving them the rights to Gravity. Warner Bros., however, claims that they have no obligation to honor Gerritsen’s contract with New Line… an argument that, should it be upheld, could prove devastating to contracted authors anywhere.
Proving a studio has “stolen” or infringed on an idea is slippery territory for writers. There are all sorts of rules used to figure out “story by” credit versus “written by” credit. For example, the Writers Guild of America states that an original writer must contribute at least one-third of the final screenplay to receive credit, whereas writers hired to “fix” or polish a script (or rewrite it entirely) must contribute more than half of the final screenplay in order to receive credit.
This all means that there is a great deal of screenwriters in Hollywood writing/contributing to films whose names never make it on the screen. In Gerritsen’s case, however, even if she drafted the initial script and then it was extensively rewritten, her contract ensured that she would at the very least receive “story by” credit.
She just had to prove that Warner Bros.’ film was, in fact, taken from her novel and subsequent screenplay. This part seems a slam dunk because…
Alfonso Cuarón was attached to both projects
Perhaps the most damning evidence in Gerritsen’s favor is the fact that the visionary writer/director, Alfonso Cuarón, was attached to direct Gerritsen’s original Gravity adaptation. Gerritsen didn’t know this at first, leading her to only speculate on the similarities between her project and his, but in 2014 she learned of Cuarón’s attachment and that pretty much sealed the deal in regards to whether or not she had grounds to sue.
Gerritsen filed a breach of contract complaint against Warner Bros. in April of 2014. That suit was recently dismissed by U.S. district judge, Margaret Morrow, but Gerritsen has been given 20 days to revise her complaint — meaning the fight isn’t over… yet.
Why this matters
For authors, the stakes of this lawsuit could not be higher. As Gerritsen states on her blog, if Warner Bros. wins this case, it could mean “that any writer who sold film rights to New Line Productions can have those rights freely exploited by its parent company Warner Bros. — and the original contract you signed with New Line will not be honored. Warner Bros. can make a movie based on your book but you will get no credit, even though your contract called for it.”
And the ramifications might not stop there, meaning “any parent film company who acquires a studio, and also acquires that studio’s intellectual properties” could potentially “exploit those properties without having to acknowledge or compensate the original authors.”
With writers already occupying the bottom of the Hollywood power pyramid, it’s no wonder they’re paying close attention to Gerritsen’s lawsuit.