CDAS is pleased that Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning playwright August Wilson will be honored with a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Fred Bimbler is counsel to the Estate of August Wilson.
Earlier this week, the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force released proposed policies and guidelines for the recommencement of productions, known as the White Paper. As of June 1, the White Paper was submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom for review.
The Task Force, comprised of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, major studios (e.g., Amazon Studios, Apple Studios, HBO, Netflix, Sony, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Fox), and many guilds and unions (i.e., Director’s Guild of America, I.A.T.S.E. and its West-Coast Studio Local Unions and New York Local Unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Basic Crafts Unions, and SAG-AFTRA), sought expert advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, health care professionals, and industry professionals who know the ins and outs of production working conditions.
The White Paper is meant to be fluid and will evolve over time in conjunction with governmental suggestions and requirements. As of now, the White Paper is intended to create the initial road map to a safe return to production, which provides guidelines with respect to, for example, “regular, periodic testing of cast and crew for Covid-19,” “universal symptom monitoring, including temperature screening,” providing disposable masks which will be replaced each day, social distancing, as well as suggestions for access to mental and physical health resources.
While the White Paper will directly affect the productions produced under the studio and network system, it also provides a framework for independent films to follow (which frame work will have to comply with governmental requirements and protocols in the jurisdiction of production, and will have to be approved by the applicable guild(s)/union(s) of the production).
It should be noted that the White Paper is a set of recommendations for government authorization to commence production and has yet to be commented on by any governmental authority or department. The White Paper can be found here.
In this increasingly competitive media landscape, companies are seeking to create entertainment brands that can endure, serve as the basis for dozens of hours of content on the new generation of owned-and-operated premium platforms, and extend across various forms of media. However, transmedia deals are seldom straightforward, and may create issues that one is less likely to encounter when negotiating a relatively simple deal for a book-to-film adaptation.
One such issue is character exclusivity – the idea that when an entertainment property has multiple rightsholders, certain characters (or, in hyper-complex instances, certain characteristics of certain characters) are owned exclusively by only one rightsholder. The phenomenon of character exclusivity (and the schism in a property that it tends to create) tends to arise from one of three main deal-making circumstances, as follows:
Traditionally, a purchaser in a rights deal acquired only one “installment” of a property, such as a novel. In the event that the author of that novel decided to write a sequel, the film and television rights in that sequel would typically be “held back” for a period of time (usually between three and seven years), and the purchaser of the first book would have a first negotiation right and some kind of matching right to acquire the rights in the sequel.
That structure is fine when one is acquiring a discrete novel for which a sequel is a hypothetical future possibility, and which would be (if written) a direct continuation of the original story. It works less well when a property is conceived from the ground up as a series, an anthology, or a shared universe (more on that below). However, even this relatively simple traditional structure begs the question: what happens if the original purchaser does not acquire a sequel?
Most studios include some form of the below language in their option agreements with respect to the creator’s reserved sequel rights:
“If Purchaser does not acquire any Author-Written Sequel, then Owner’s right to dispose of any rights in such Author-Written Sequel shall not include the right to produce or cause the production of any audiovisual production which contains any of the characters or incidents contained in the original Property.”
In essence, this language provides that a creator can sell sequel rights to a third party (subject to the holdback and first negotiation/matching right), but not rights to any characters that appear in the original work. So, to illustrate, the author of Bridget Jones could sell the screen rights to the second Bridget Jones book, but would not be permitted to grant rights to the character Bridget Jones (feel free to replace “Bridget Jones” with “Harry Potter,” “Harry Bosch,” “Frodo” or any other character of your choosing).
Suffice to say, this creates instant character exclusivity and in many instances makes the development of a sequel by a new buyer unworkable.
On the subject of “creator sequels,” it is also worth mentioning that contractual standards that were very simple when formulated to address the acquisition of discrete works such as novels or plays may be much less elegant in the modern world. For example, it may be difficult to discern the line between the “original property” and a “sequel” when you have an ongoing comic book series with multiple spinoffs. How about a true crime podcast anthology that presents multiple “seasons” focused on different crimes, under one united brand? Or what about a video game where updates are presented via a series of continuous downloadable updates, as opposed to individual and clearly separate releases at brick-and-mortar retailers?
These are issues that we are thinking about and addressing on a daily basis and should evidence why it is important that rightsholders and purchasers alike engage experienced rights counsel!
“Studio Created” Elements
Another provision commonly found in rights purchase agreements reads substantially as follows:
“The Reserved Rights do not include, and Owner will have no right to exploit or use, any new or changed element created by or for Purchaser and/or any new characters, new characterizations and other new elements from any production produced by Purchaser.”
Think of this as the “Daryl Dixon” clause. When AMC optioned and developed “The Walking Dead” comic books for television, they created Daryl as a new character. Daryl promptly went on to become one of the most popular characters in the series.
Because of the clause above, the comic book writer and publisher were not permitted to use Daryl in the source material – or in connection with any other reserved rights (such as video games and merchandising based on the comic book, as opposed to the TV series).
Historically, there were good reasons for this clause. It does not make sense for the author to be unjustly enriched by the studio’s creativity and investment, and the inclusion of a new character back in the original source material could trigger additional guild or contractual obligations (in essence, putting the purchaser on the hook for exploitation that it doesn’t control).
However, we are finally moving towards a paradigm where characters move fluidly across media and different forms of exploitation – where new movies are promoted in Fortnite, and where Freddy Krueger, the Demogorgon, and Michael Myers can all appear as killers in Dead by Daylight. In gaming in particular, there may be a compelling reason for a game publisher to be able to use a character in their games who initially appeared in a television series. Moreover, the expectation of audiences is increasingly that there will be some level of coordination and consistency across media, and so it may be necessary to reexamine the necessity of this clause in very specific circumstances.
The concept of character exclusivity becomes particularly complicated in the instance of a “shared universe” – a vast sprawling story world that may encompass dozens of separate narratives that could be tied together by relatively obscure or minimal narrative threads. Think Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere or, of course, the Marvel Universe.
For a shared story universe, it is possible, or even likely, that different characters or story elements will be controlled by different rightsholders. This concept has become familiar to audiences due to the X-Men and Avengers living (up to now) in completely separate story universes – or via the high profile and very public negotiations that were necessary to bring Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Absent special arrangement, characters are “stuck” in one universe and cannot “cross over” – even if they did so routinely in the source material. This may lead to audience confusion and frustration.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and in addition to the aforementioned Spider-Man example, two characters were “shared” by Fox and Disney pre-merger – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver (who appeared in the X-Men franchise starting with Days of Future Past, and in the MCU starting with Avengers: The Age of Ultron (after a brief post-credits appearance in Winter Soldier). However, the two iterations of the characters were played by different actors and, there were purportedly very specific contractual stipulations on how they could be characterized in each universe.
While the concept of a “shared universe” applies mostly to superhero and fantasy worlds, there are still potential repercussions for creators in other genres. For example, an author who writes crossovers between two book series (as Michael Connolly has done with the Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer books), or includes an Easter egg type cameo in their romance novel with a character from another book may be inadvertently creating rights and contractual issues that must be carefully addressed (and may be potentially headache inducing). Of course, the most successful US author of all – Stephen King – does this routinely. But creators must be careful because it is unlikely that they have the leverage that King does over his intellectual property!
Briana Hill represented Blumhouse in the deal to adapt sci-fi thriller feature “Upgrade” as a TV series. Leigh Whannell, who wrote and directed the movie, is set to direct the series.
Blumhouse’s bittersweet documentary “A Secret Love” premiered today on Netflix to rave reviews. Simon Pulman represented Blumhouse in its deal with the filmmakers, Briana Hill was involved in the film’s financing, and Calvin Mohammadi and Simon represented Blumhouse in its deal with Netflix. Watch the trailer here.
The highly regarded “Guide to the Top Lawyers and Law Firms” described CDAS as a “highly skilled boutique offering excellent capabilities handling trademark and copyright infringement cases, as well as substantial portfolio management matters. [CDAS] exhibits expertise acting for market-leading entertainment, media and digital platform clients.” In addition to recognizing the firm for Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (New York), Nancy Wolff was also recognized as “a leading attorney in IP issues relating to digital media, counseling clients in a broad range of matters including disputes and licensing.”
This beautiful reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s beloved characters, produced by Andrea Cannistraci’s client Paul Mezey and for which Andrea provided production legal services, is widely available as of today. Watch the trailer here.
Pray Away exposes the damage caused by the religious right’s so-called reparative therapy programs that claim to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity as told in personal stories of defectors from these programs. Read the review here.
With the recent spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 and its unprecedented precipitation of social-distancing, work-from-home policies, shelter-in-place orders, and limitations on foreign travel, many individuals may be questioning whether certain contractual obligations are excused. This article provides a primer on the contract concepts of force majeure, impossibility and impracticability, and related provisions that affect, and may in certain instances excuse, performance of contractual duties owing to changed circumstances outside any signatory’s control.
A force majeure clause is a contract provision that excuses a party’s performance of its obligations under a contract when events beyond the party’s control make performance impossible. To invoke a contract’s force majeure clause, a party must typically demonstrate that (1) a disruptive event enumerated by the force majeure clause has occurred; (2) the risk of nonperformance was not foreseeable; and (3) that the event has rendered the party’s performance impossible.
A party looking to invoke a force majeure clause must follow several steps:
First, a party must examine the contract’s definition of what constitutes a “force majeure” event and demonstrate that the change in circumstances was included within the definition. Force majeure events will have been enumerated within a force majeure clause and generally include: Acts of God; severe acts of nature or weather events including floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, or explosions; war; acts of terrorism; epidemics; acts of governmental authorities such as expropriation or condemnation; changes in laws and regulations; and strikes and labor disputes.
Determining whether a force majeure clause applies is a highly fact-intensive exercise, because whether a party is excused for non-performance stems from the specific contractual language used within an agreement. For example, some contracts’ force majeure provisions may specify disease, epidemics, or pandemics as cause for non-performance, while others may only refer to disease-related disruptions by reference to “Acts of God” or catch-all phrases such as “any event or circumstance beyond the reasonable control of the affected party.”
Where disease-related occurrences have been specifically enumerated, a party may find it easier to invoke its force majeure clause in the context of COVID-19. It may be more challenging where, instead, there is only catch-all language in place; however, a catch-all phrase, or similarly broad language (such as a force majeure clause that begins its list with “including, but not limited to”), may provide some protection, particularly if courts relax their traditional preference for excusing performance solely based on clearly enumerated circumstances, in response to an onslaught of COVID-19 related contract disputes. Additionally, where a party can point to a governmental restriction in place because of COVID-19, it may have additional grounds to defend nonperformance.
Second, an affected party must demonstrate a causal link between the force majeure event and its failure to perform. In other words, a party’s performance must be impossible because of the changed circumstances surrounding the contract. For example, in light of COVID-19, the owner of a performing arts venue may successfully argue that recent government orders in his or her state have made it impossible to continue under contract with scheduled performances and obligations to performers, considering the widespread uptick in closures of non-essential businesses. On the other hand, should both parties to a contract be capable of conducting transactions online and/or having a history of remote online transactions, it may be more difficult to argue that COVID-19 has rendered performance impossible (at least without demonstrating other exigent circumstances).
Upon successfully invoking a force majeure provision, a party may either suspend performance or terminate the contract outright, depending on the scope of its force majeure clause. It is thus important to verify the terms of the clause, which may also dictate that force majeure coverage will only kick in after a certain period has elapsed, such as 90 days.
If the contract does not contain a force majeure clause, a party may turn to the common law defenses of impossibility or impracticability to excuse performance (though note that New York only recognizes impracticability in rare circumstances, such as in connection with sales of goods under the Uniform Commercial Code). A party may also invoke additional contract provisions where present, such as the “Material Adverse Effect” provision common to many commercial contracts.
Impossibility & Impracticability
Impossibility and impracticability exist where circumstances extraneous to a contract render a party’s performance either impossible or impractical. Although the contract itself was adequately formed and would otherwise maintain its binding effect, these defenses recognize that a post-formation change in circumstances has fundamentally altered the ability of the parties to perform under it. A party’s performance will be excused if the following elements are met:
- An unforeseen event has occurred. Akin to the events enumerated in force majeure clauses, these may include natural disasters, strikes, and other major events.
- The nonoccurrence of this event was a basic assumption of the contract. At the time of contracting, the parties did not foresee the event that has since occurred, regardless of whether it was theoretically “foreseeable”. This assumption of nonoccurrence need not be explicitly outlined within the contract, but must be generally apparent from the nature, terms, and purpose of the contract. Under the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs sales of goods, a “[d]elay in delivery or non-delivery in whole or in part by a seller . . . is not a breach of his duty under a contract for sale if performance as agreed has been made impracticable by the occurrence of a contingency the non-occurrence of which was a basic assumption on which the contract was made.” U.C.C. § 2-615. For example, this provision may apply in the event of a labor dispute where striking workers fail to deliver a shipment of the seller’s goods. In such cases, a seller must seasonably notify the buyer of the delay or non-delivery, and, where a seller may still partially perform, must allocate production and deliveries among customers in a “fair and reasonable” manner.
- The effect of the event has rendered the party’s performance impossible or impracticable. The changed circumstance must be extreme, such that it is unduly burdensome or impossible for the party to comply as originally planned; where impossibility is concerned, under New York law, the subject matter of the contract must have been destroyed or the means of performance must have been rendered objectively impossible. The party seeking relief from its obligations under the existing contract must also show that it was not at fault in causing the event. The reasoning behind this requirement is clear: a party should not be able to take advantage of his or her own misconduct. Here, it is also important to determine how risk has been allocated between the parties under the contract. Even where the other requirements are met, if the adversely affected party assumed the risk of the occurrence of the changed circumstances during contract formation (impliedly or explicitly), it will not be able to invoke impossibility or impracticability. To gauge risk allocation, a party should examine the express language of the contract (i.e., what disruptive events the parties contemplated, and which party was to bear the associated loss and expense), or even the parties’ course of business and dealings. Industry customs may also provide clues to proper risk allocation. For example, industry custom in property rentals is for a premises owner to obtain casualty insurance rather than the party hosting its event on site. As such, risk for the loss of the property would flow more naturally to the owner.
Other Contract Clauses
Various additional contractual provisions may relate to an unexpected event like COVID-19.
- Material Adverse Change (MAC) Clause
Many commercial contracts include a material adverse change clause (otherwise known as “material adverse effect”). Where present, this clause could excuse performance or allow a party to suspend performance should a materially adverse change occur. Events constituting a materially adverse change are, as with force majeure provisions, commonly enumerated specifically within the contract and typically also involve wide-scale disruptions.
Historically, MAC clauses have been difficult to enforce, as courts are wary of excusing contractual performance for short-term changes in circumstances, but as is possible with force majeure and related defenses, courts may shift their stance in the coming months. For example, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, New York courts were more amenable to viewing declining rental prices in Manhattan as grounds to declare a material adverse change (See In re Lyondell Chem. Co., 567 B.R. 55, 123 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2017), aff’d, 585 B.R. 41 (S.D.N.Y. 2018) (citing River Terrace Assocs., LLC v. Bank of N.Y., 10 Misc. 3d 1052(A), 2005 WL 3234228 (N.Y. Sup. Ct.), aff’d, 23 A.D.3d 308 (N.Y. App. Div. 2005))). Further, New York courts have allowed commercial parties to cease contractual performance based on demonstrated extensive financial losses during the pendency of a merger (see Katz v. NVF Co., 100 A.D.2d 470, 471 (N.Y. App. Div. 1984)).
Commercial contracts commonly contain covenants obligating parties to undertake or refrain from certain behavior. While it is unlikely that parties would have allocated obligations or risk regarding COVID-19 in a covenant, it is worth revisiting covenants within a contract to gauge whether they will affect or be affected by current circumstances. For example, many agreements include covenants obligating parties to provide notice that they are invoking force majeure or that material events have occurred that could give rise to litigation or loss beyond the ordinary course of business.
- Termination Provisions
Even if parties may not utilize force majeure or other contractual provisions to justify non-performance under a contract, there may be termination provisions that kick in based on the occurrence of certain contingencies, whether at-will or otherwise, such as for late delivery or a breach of a “time is of the essence” clause. It is worth viewing any such provisions within the context of the larger defenses of impossibility, impracticability, and force majeure excusal of nonperformance, in case the other party nonetheless attempts to invoke these doctrines to negate invocation of a termination provision.
This is not the law’s first brush with the unexpected, and although this is a time of wide-reaching uncertainty, woven into contract law, particularly, is a system to guide parties through the serious impacts that unexpected events may have. Our team at Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP will continue to provide updates on legal developments related to the present circumstances and we are available should you request further or specific guidance.