My GRAVITY lawsuit and how it affects every writer who sells to Hollywood

Saturday, Jan 31st, 2015 @ 08:29 am

Yesterday, the court granted Warner Bros’s motion to dismiss my lawsuit against them. While Warner Bros crows victory, the judge has in fact left the door open for me to pursue my claim, allowing my legal team twenty days to revise our complaint and address the single issue of concern: the corporate relationship between Warner Bros. and New Line Productions.

For those unfamiliar with why I sued, you can find my original statement here:

A quick wrap-up of the facts:

In 1999, I sold the film rights to my book GRAVITY to New Line Productions. The contract stipulates that if a movie is made based on my book, I will receive “based upon” credit, a production bonus, and a percentage of net profits. The book is about a female medical doctor/astronaut/Mission Specialist who is stranded aboard the International Space Station after the rest of her crew is killed in a series of accidents. A shuttle is destroyed, and damages to ISS require the heroine to perform a hazardous space walk. A biological hazard aboard ISS traps her in quarantine, unable to return to earth. While my film was in development, I re-wrote the third act of the film script and my additional scenes included the shooting down of a satellite which results in a debris cloud colliding with ISS, the complete destruction of ISS, and the lone surviving female astronaut left adrift and untethered in her spacesuit.

Alfonso Cuaron was attached to direct my film — a fact I did not know at the time. My project never made it out of development.

In 2008, Warner Bros acquired New Line Productions. The takeover was rumored to be brutal, with numerous New Line employees losing their jobs overnight.

Sometime around 2008 – 2009, Alfonso Cuaron wrote his original screenplay “Gravity” about a female Mission Specialist astronaut who is the sole survivor after her colleagues are killed by satellite debris destroying their shuttle. She is left adrift in her space suit, and is later stranded aboard the International Space Station. I noted the similarities, but I had no evidence of any connection between Cuaron and my project. Without proof, I could not publicly accuse him of theft, so when asked about the similarities by fans and reporters, I told them it could be coincidental.

In February 2014, my literary agent was informed of Cuaron’s attachment to my project back in 2000. Now the similarities between my book and Cuaron’s movie could no longer be dismissed as coincidence. I sought legal help, and we filed a Breach of Contract complaint that April. Please note: this is not a case of copyright infringement. Warner Bros., through its ownership of New Line, also controls the film rights to my book. They had every right to make the movie — but they claim they have no obligation to honor my contract with New Line.

This is why every writer who sells to Hollywood should be alarmed.

It means 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.

It means that any parent film company who acquires a studio, and also acquires that studio’s intellectual properties, can exploit those properties without having to acknowledge or compensate the original authors.

This is alarming on many levels, and the principles involved go far beyond my individual lawsuit. Every writer who sells film rights to Hollywood must now contend with the possibility that the studio they signed the contract with could be swallowed up by a larger company — and that parent company can then make a movie based on your book without compensating you. It means Hollywood contracts are worthless.

But as I said, the door is not yet entirely closed on my lawsuit. My attorney Glen Kulik has issued the following statement:

The court issued a long, detailed, and very thoughtful opinion in which it noted that we need to include more facts in our pleading relative to the relationship between Warner Bros. and New Line — that was the only issue before the court on the motion. This happens quite often in litigation, and now we need to go ahead and file an amended complaint which corrects the technical deficiencies using the court’s decision as our roadmap. I do not think that will be hard to do as we have learned a great deal more information about the Warner Bros/New Line relationship since the original Complaint
was filed.

We will push on.

******************

Addendum: visit my 6/29/15 blogpost to see the conclusion to my lawsuit.

Some commenters have asked how I can possibly prove that the movie “Gravity” was inspired by my novel “Gravity.”  Aside from the fact Alfonso Cuaron was involved with both projects, I offer this example:

If there were a movie called “Ralph and Julia,” about two young lovers who commit suicide in a tomb in Verona, I don’t think anyone would doubt which work of literature inspired the movie.  Even though the movie may have no feuding families or Montagues and Capulets.  Even if there’s no guy named Mercutio who gets stabbed in a duel.  There are enough unusual elements (setting, characters, situation, title) that point you straight to “Romeo and Juliet” as inspiration.

It took me two years to research and write my story GRAVITY.  I read dozens of textbooks on aerospace science, astronaut training, and shuttle operations.  I visited Johnson Space Center in Texas and Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  I corresponded with NASA engineers, program managers, and flight doctors.

To see the Cuarons’ description of how they wrote their GRAVITY script, you can read an interview with them here:

“They regrouped in the elder Cuaron’s London home one afternoon and began talking about the theme of adversity, about knowing when to fight and when to give up, and the theme of rebirth. And two images drove them: an astronaut spinning into the void and someone getting up and walking away. “Gravity was a metaphor, the force that keeps pulling us back to life,” says Jonas Cuaron.

A first draft was written in three weeks.”

Apparently the Cuarons didn’t need to do any research.

30 responses to “My GRAVITY lawsuit and how it affects every writer who sells to Hollywood”

  1. Fran Turner says:

    Hmm, certainly begs a few questions on how Warner seem to walk over people. Do they have no scruples?

  2. dchernow says:

    You have a good, and important, case. And, it appears that you are in a good position.

    You emphasize the fact that this is a breach of contract case, and not a copyright infringement case. But, it seems is if Warner Bros. wants to have it both ways: they claim that there is no contract with respect to your rights, but that there is a contract with respect to their film rights. So,if Warner Bros. should win their argument that there is no contract, then they do not own the rights to your book. And then you do have a copyright infringement case.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Rob420 says:

    “I sold the film rights to my book”

    there’s your problem. you’re a writer who can read and it should have been pretty obvious during your contract negotiations what that would entail.

  4. fordiman says:

    Hey, just wanted you to know that this post was linked on reddit. The conversation there is largely positive. Perhaps you could go in and answer some questions for people (as far as would be legally wise)?

    http://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/2uedsa/my_gravity_lawsuit_and_how_it_affects_every/

  5. imidazole0 says:

    This is terrible, tragic, and should obviously be illegal. Attached to the intellectual property are the stipulations that go with it – you should not be able to only take what you want, and ditch the rest. If for example it was the other way around – that if a movie was made the author would pay the movie production company a “thank you fee” – surely they would not have forgotten or left out that part.

    I hope you win your battle. Great story, and you deserve what is due for it.

  6. bluffrdtrust says:

    I find this mystifying and a bit terrifying. Wouldn’t it have been much easier and cheaper (not to mention less ugly and just plain “right”) for them to have honored their contract with you? This kind of situation coupled with the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights,(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marjorie-cohn/supreme-court-upholds-aut_b_6579916.html), and the Citizens United supreme court decision is frightening. Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe I’m not paranoid enough. Either way, I wish you well, and I bet you can get a great book out of all this in the end!

  7. molenerd says:

    If your amended complaint is also dismissed and you have no further options, the door may be open to sell the same rights to a competing studio. That would make things very interesting for all of the persons who contracted with New Line Cinema.

  8. harroldsheep says:

    when i first heard about the movie couple years ago, i was pretty excited because i had read your book earlier and really enjoyed it. i was a bit dismayed when, doing some research, that you were not connected to the project. i wondered how could that be considering the subject mater…heck even the TITLE.
    i thought it was the best film i had seen that year and that reflects on the filmmakers to be sure, but it should be known that i think that it could’t have been without your book.

  9. hazzan says:

    Good luck to you. I’m outraged that Warner would steal from you in this way.

  10. ianfisch says:

    Could you please explain a little more as to why the court came to this conclusion. Your lawyer said it issued a long and thoughtful opinion.

    You draw some very big and broad conclusions

    “It means that any parent film company who acquires a studio, and also acquires that studio’s intellectual properties, can exploit those properties without having to acknowledge or compensate the original authors.”

    but I imagine the court opinion is far more nuanced and limited than this. It would be great to hear its details, or better yet, a link to the opinion itself.

  11. planet4589 says:

    I remember corresponding with you back in 1999 when you wrote GRAVITY. When I saw the movie I was shocked not to see your name anywhere in the credits. Good luck with the lawsuit, you deserve to take Cuaron for everything he’s got.
    – Jonathan ‘Space Report’ McDowell

  12. chrstnwll says:

    Thanks for sharing your journey. This is a great lesson for every writer. Our work deserves to be protected and credit due, where credit is due. I wish you luck and hope they rule in your favor!

  13. ebenz1966 says:

    It’s sad and upsetting that these monster studios are actually monsters. I’m sick of “legal and illegal” and long for the good old days of “right and wrong”. Warner Bros. should do the right thing and honor your with New Line. I wish you success with your amended complaint.

  14. mikefox says:

    Hi Tess, I’m sorry to hear of this situation, I really enjoyed the movie, I found the plot compelling and the story well told, I’m disappointed their success is riding on your loss. I’m glad I found your blog as I did not know it was based on a book, I will be buying it now.

    Good luck with the case, I hope you get the recognition and reward you clearly deserve.

  15. bear bomb says:

    Hi Tess Gerritsen! I applaud your taking the proper steps in submitting what became GRAVITY through your attorney and under a contract. Screenplays for 12 YEARS A SLAVE and SELMA were done outside of the Writers Guild and contributions by additional writers were not recognized or compensated. The late Art Buchwald famously lost his lawsuit over payment for COMING TO AMERICA. I hope that Warner Bros. will do the right thing by you, as GRAVITY was a ten year process to be made and many hands were involved on its journey to the screen. Warner’s new CEO Kevin Tsujihara personally lobbied J.K.Rowling back on the blocks to Hogwarts. Cassie Warner is a filmmaker and involved with Warner Sisters, which might be another avenue for you to pursue to resolve this matter amicably. I wish you the best of luck as this goes forward! – Brad Barnes

  16. MyDogsPA says:

    Hey, Tess, if WB doesn’t accept the contract put in place by New Line with you then how does WB own the rights to ‘Gravity?’ They can’t have it both ways where they get to pick and choose which New Line contracts they get to honor. If they insist on not wanting to honor your contract then you can paint them into a corner and insist that they don’t own the material, in which case they violated copyright.

    I know it sounds too simple, and it may be, but here’s hoping you can use any snippet of this to get the recognition you deserve.

    All the best.

  17. Greg Snow says:

    Hi Tess,

    This is outrageous. I’ve had two similar things happen to me. Once with a novel called “Surface Tension”, bought by the late Laura Ziskin. While it was in development the Jim Carrey movie “The Mask” appeared. The underlying ideas were so similar that there was no chance of “my” flick ever happening. Then, a few years later, Fox commissioned an original screenplay from me, called “Nothing but the Truth” about a guy compelled to tell the truth. Incredibly, the Carrey film “Liar, Liar” then appeared!

    In both cases I have no clear idea if I got ripped off or not. “The Mask” was a pre-existing comic book, I believe; but I’m not so sure about “Liar, Liar”. I sometimes wonder if I should have pursued that one.

    Anyway, I think you have a strong case and that you shouldn’t walk away from this. As you say, the notion that the purchase of one studio by another negates all existing deals is simply outrageous.

    I shall be following your case.

    Best wishes,

    Greg.

  18. Tess says:

    New Line continues to hold the rights. I can’t sell them elsewhere. It also means I can’t sue for copyright infringement because New Line owns the rights, and New Line is owned by Warner Bros.

  19. Tess says:

    I’m afraid to go on Reddit. That place scares me!

  20. mrdeadhead says:

    wait! if reddit likes you, it’s the right time to check it out! and you never know what helpful folks you might find on there

  21. I wish you well winning this war!

  22. Regan says:

    This disgusts me. You are the second author in a month I’ve heard something like this happening to. The other one was offered — and accepted a movie contract a few years ago and kept waiting and waiting for things to move forward. He came to find out someone had written a similar script and the studio offered him the contract — and paid him some money just to tie up the rights so they could make the other movie and not have competition from him.

    I loved your Gravity book — it was one of those ones that I started and sat up all night until it was done. When I saw the movie I kept wondering why you’d changed some things — now I know — it wasn’t you at all. This just sucks.

  23. datahog says:

    You will prevail, Tess.

  24. Randy Mill says:

    “there’s your problem. you’re a writer who can read and it should have been pretty obvious during your contract negotiations what that would entail”

    Wrong in a couple of different ways. In the bigger picture, since she is allowed to bring a suit like this, obviously the law agrees that this type of thing is the problem of many – that is why lawsuits such as these are allowed at all.

    In her specific case, if the new company came in and doesn’t have to honor old contracts then that is as if the old contract doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t exist there there is no source material for the new company to draw from, either. None of it happened, legally. In other words, if the new company doesn’t have to honor old contracts they don’t necessarily get the use of the intellectual property or source material from the old company of the old company didn’t generate it originally. They aren’t allowed to come in and mine the resources of the old company without also taking on some of the liabilities (older, unfulfilled contracts).

    This is why the judge gave her side the twenty days to amend their case – so they could get it legally correct since the judge saw that she did indeed have a valid argument (i.e., the case wasn’t dismissed as a frivolous lawsuit).

    Add to the fact that the buyout wouldn’t have been mentioned in the contract and most likely applied only to New Line, not any companies that would own New Line in the future.

  25. sarahvam says:

    A little bit of ‘secret info’. The major studios and actors including powerful insiders, use egregore in matters like these. Hollywood is a oligarchy. And that includes the judicial system to some extend.

    So before your next round of litigation against these people, seek the input of a very skilled LHP practitioner of rhe craft. (esoteric knowledge)
    You CANNOT win without challenging and counteracting that part of their defenses. Trust me, I know.

    “the secret is to give away the secret”
    You have it, use it to your advantage.

  26. PaulLev says:

    Every contract I’ve ever seen (or signed) has, as part of its assignability clause, a clause that says, if the contract is assignable and assigned to a third party, that such third party is bound by all provisions of the original contract. That’s boiler plate – and it’s amazing that Warner Bros would dare to try what is alleged here.

  27. Tess says:

    My contract for Gravity does indeed have an assignability clause. It’s quoted in the complaint, viewable on the Hollywood Reporter site:

    “ASSIGNMENT: Owner agrees that Company may assign this Agreement, in whole or in part, at any time to any person, corporation, or other entity, provided that unless this assignment is to a so-called major or mini-major production company or distributor or similarly financially responsible party or purchaser of substantially all of Company’s stocks or assets which assumes in writing all of Company’s obligations, Company shall remain secondarily liable for all obligations to Owner hereunder.”

  28. charlieadler says:

    Did the court conclude that you had written the source material for the film Gravity? Because all of this rests on that conclusion. I would assume that you believe that Alfonso Cuaron and his son consciously stole from your source material to make this film? and, if so, why didn’t you include them in a suit? Or complain to the guild?

    Sincerely,

    Charlie

  29. Tess says:

    The court never reached the point of even addressing the topic of similarities. Judge Morrow specifically said she did not consider either the book or the movie, but was only focused on whether WB needed to honor NL’s contract obligations. Since she decided WB had no liability, we never were able to progress to the question of whether the movie was inspired by the book. Thus, we were not able to present our evidence linking the two projects.

  30. iannicholson says:

    This sort of thing makes my blood boil! I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of duplicitous behaviour from unscrupulous jackals.

    When one company acquires another, it acquires all its assets, but also its debts and obligations. I am quite surprised that the judge hasn’t seen it this way.

    I’d be investigating things down that avenue, but it does indeed sound as if you have strong grounds for copyright infringement regardless.

    Don’t give up! A chink will appear in their armour soon enough, and when it does, plunge that knife in with both hands and give it a real good twist for me. 😉

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