With another Friday the 13th upon us, it’s only natural that we’re once again talking about the Friday the 13th franchise. As most horror fans know by now, the film franchise has been held up for several years now in a legal battle between Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller and Friday the 13th director Sean Cunningham, with the rights currently split between them.
Here’s a little backstory/recap, as this one gets a bit confusing…
Ever since a judge ruled back in 2018 that Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller is the sole owner of the original screenplay (in the US, at least), Friday director Sean Cunningham has been working to have the decision reversed. The argument continues to be that Miller wrote the screenplay as a “work-for-hire,” and therefore never should’ve been able to gain rights to the screenplay in the first place. While the trial judge had ruled that the rights go to Miller after all these years under the Copyright Act’s termination right, which allows authors to regain rights to work they signed over to a company, Cunningham and Horror Inc. were hoping that the Second Circuit Court of Appeals would end up reversing that decision.
The Second Circuit was tasked with deciding if Miller would keep the rights to the Friday screenplay, as decided in 2018, or if they would revert back to Cunningham/Horror Inc. As we learned last year, Miller won that copyright termination appeal. In other words, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s previous order, rejecting the argument and concluding that “Miller was an independent contractor when he wrote the screenplay and is therefore entitled to authorship rights.” Summary judgement was awarded, therefore, to Miller.
This was a huge next step in the process, but it certainly doesn’t mean that Miller is now free to take the franchise and do whatever he wants with it. For now, until various deals are worked out behind the scenes, which will likely still take a long time – for starters, owning the original screenplay doesn’t mean you own the character of Adult Jason Voorhees as we know him, and Miller’s ownership of the work only covers domestic rights – the franchise will remain dormant. But what – if anything – can Miller and his team do with what they currently own?
A new report from CNN this afternoon gets into some of those details, with Miller’s legal team talking for the first time about what they can – and very well might – attempt to do.
Marc Toberoff, a Malibu copyright attorney who represents Victor Miller, tells CNN, “Now we can license a remake, prequel or even sequel motion pictures… provided such films do not use any additional copyrightable elements.” In other words, Miller can only use elements from the ORIGINAL Friday the 13th movie, which of course doesn’t include adult Jason Voorhees.
That means Miller also can’t use the iconic hockey mask, even if it’s worn by a different character, and we’ve learned he doesn’t actually own the title Friday the 13th either.
“We can license television series, exploring Crystal Lake and how Jason became who he is — think ‘Twin Peaks’ or ‘Bates Motel,’” Toberoff muses, throwing out possible ideas.
In other words, Miller only has young Jason Voorhees at his disposal, so he could theoretically work with filmmakers on a project involving Jason’s early years – before the mask. Presumably, he could also use the character of Mrs. Pamela Voorhees, the killer in the original film.
But the other major problem here is that Miller only has rights to the screenplay in the United States, which means he can’t make a movie with worldwide distribution.
“Miller has to convince a studio to make this thing that can only be distributed in the U.S.,” entertainment lawyer/Friday the 13th Part 3 star Larry Zerner tells CNN. “We can have this theoretical argument that you can do a movie that doesn’t infringe on the rights of anyone else, but is anyone seriously going to do that without worldwide rights? I doubt it.”
As for what Sean Cunningham is able to do without Victor Miller, it would seem that he can’t use Jason Voorhees without Miller’s permission, which ties his hands quite a bit.
“I think for sure it will come back,” Cunningham tells CNN. “But I can’t tell you it will come back this year or next. Will Jason come back in the theaters? Right now, it is 50-50.”
For now, the two parties are still at odds with one another, and the only way for any progress to be made is for them to work something out. We’ll keep waiting. Stay tuned for more.