The Long, Sordid History of D&D Movie Rights
The Hollywood Reporter just announced that Warner Bros., Hasbro, and Sweetpea Entertainment have come to an agreement to move forward on a Dungeons & Dragons film franchise without further legal involvement. Hasbro and Warner Bros. may pretend that this is all water under the bridge, but it’s actually just the latest chapter in a long, agonizing journey that started with a handshake deal and a family friend.


It's All Marvel's Fault


When Marvel managed to turn its comic book properties into blockbuster movie franchises, Hasbro noticed. They set into motion a plan to “Marvel-ize” all of their gaming properties, which is why Battleship and Ouija were turned into movies, with a Monopoly movie on the way. Brian Goldner, President and Chief Operating

Officer, explained


...the strategy that we're employing and we see those revenues from our consumer products business as important as and an opportunity to expand our operating profit beyond just what our Toys and Games business can provide. (Seeking Alpha)


It was perhaps inevitable that Dungeons & Dragons would get the same treatment. According to later lawsuits:


D&D is played by as many as 6 million people around the world and consumers have spent more than $1 billion on D&D products.


In May of 2013 Hasbro set up the project at Universal to be developed as a directing vehicle by Chris Morgan, the scribe behind the last five films in The Fast and the Furious franchise (including "Fast 6") and 47 Ronin. It was an easy win for everybody…except pesky Sweetpea Entertainment, the last owner of the Dungeons & Dragons movie rights who was planning to launch their own film based on the progenitor to Dungeons & Dragons, Chainmail. The solution? Sue Sweetpea Entertainment to stop the film from moving forward.


Hasbro Plays Offense


The lawsuit, visible here, claimed that Sweetpea's license began on September 1, 1994, and was amended by two later agreements on March 19, 1998 and June 8, 1998. It's worth noting that these amendments were all made when TSR owned the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, before the company was taken over by Wizards of the Coast. 


According to the suit, Sweetpea had the rights to make one live-action theatrical motion picture and was granted the right to make one or more sequels by Hasbro. Additionally, Sweetpea received separate and independent rights to make "one or more live-action television series" based on the Dungeons & Dragons license. Hasbro claimed Sweetpea's motion picture rights were baseless because the first amendment to the rights indicated that sequel rights would revert to Hasbro:


on a rolling basis...on the earlier of (i) five (5) years from of [sic] the initial U.S. release or (ii) seven (7) years from final director's cut of the immediately prior picture. A second separate provision in the First Amendment provided that the Television Rights would revert to Hasbro if Sweetpea failed to "commence production based on the [Television Rights] on a rolling basis within five (5) years after the initial broadcast of the final original episode of any television series or of any television motion picture.


The rights pivoted on the status of the sequels, "Wrath of the Dragon God" and "The Book of Vile Darkness," which the suit alleged were both "television motion pictures." According to the suit, their status as TV movies did not qualify as a "theatrical motion picture" and therefore did not "reset the Sequel Rights' five-year revision clock." As evidence that Sweetpea Entertainment knew it was creating a television show and not an actual sequel to the movie:


Sweetpea paid, and Hasbro accepted, a payment of $20,000--the amount contractually tied only to the exploitation of Television Rights, and consistent with the parties' mutual understanding that the Second TV Movie was a made-for-television production for release on the Syfy Channel. Were the Second TV Movie planned or released as a theatrical or non-theatrical sequel, prequel or remake based on the Picture, Sweetpea would have paid the greater amount under the License for exercising the Sequel Rights.


Using the payment as evidence, the lawsuit alleged that the movie rights actually reverted to Hasbro five years after the movie's debut of December 8, 2005.


The history of the amendments to the license are illustrative of just how wild and wacky the world of movie rights –- and the fate of a potentially massive franchise –- can be determined by a kid with a movie camera and a dream.


Sweetpea Entertainment Wins the Movie Rights "For a Song"


Sweetpea Entertainment promptly filed a countersuit against Hasbro over the rights to the Dungeons & Dragons movie, illustrating a detailed history that sheds some light on Courtney Solomon's relationship with the D&D brand. It also reveals telling details about how the sub-par Dungeons & Dragons movie came about:


Growing up in Toronto, Canada, Courtney Solomon had been an enthusiast of Dungeons & Dragons. In 1990, when he was only 19 years old, Solomon wanted to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a feature film or television program. After making a few phone calls, Solomon discovered, to his surprise, that no one had acquired the motion picture rights to Dungeons & Dragons...Solomon formed the corporation Sweetpea Entertainment Corporation (“SEC”) on or about April 6, 1990, to serve as a fully active production company specializing in live-action motion pictures, especially with respect to Dungeons & Dragons. Solomon and John Benitz held the majority shares.


During its first year of operations, SEC devoted the majority of its energy to obtaining the universal rights to the Dungeons & Dragons trademark and property. Solomon met with TSR, and proposed a plan to bring Dungeons & Dragons to the theaters, which entailed, among other things, Solomon obtaining funding, producing the film and finding a director. 


Although TSR had solicited and received offers to option the Dungeons & Dragons property in the past, no one in the film industry had expressed any serious interest. It was also hugely important to TSR, a company created solely to publish Dungeons & Dragons materials, that whoever ended up licensing the rights to Dungeons & Dragons have a passion for the game, and a serious intention to turn the property into a motion picture. 


At first, TSR had little interest in Solomon’s proposal. Over the course of two years, however, after attending several meetings and sending TSR proposal after proposal, Solomon impressed TSR with his seriousness and level of commitment and the parties proceeded to make a deal.


Solomon himself provided a slightly less positive spin on the events in an interview with Geoffrey Kleinman on DVDTalk


It was an idea that I had when I was twenty. I used to play the game and I loved it. I grew up in the film business and I was ready to make my journey to Hollywood and start my career, from Toronto. I made some cold calls and nobody had the rights at that point. They had talked to a lot of different people in studios and big film makers and that sort of stuff, but they were never really comfortable making a deal with those people. I guess mainly because they didn't feel they'd have enough control. The lady that owned the company at that point was a real "control freak" if you will. It's owned by Hasbro now. 


Long story short, initially they weren't going to give me the rights either. They sort of laughed me out the door because I was so young. I wasn't saying that I was actually going to be the filmmaker at that point, I was saying that I would just produce it, get the money together and find the filmmaker to do it, which is the route I went with for many, many, many years until finally we went and did it ourselves.


The "lady that owned the company" is the notorious Lorraine Williams, an American businesswoman who was in charge of the gaming company TSR, Inc. from 1986 to 1997.


According to Solomon, it took two years of negotiating with Lorraine and sending proposals to convince TSR to launch a film. That's not how popular "Dragonlance" (a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting) co-creator Margaret Weiss remembers it:


Actually one of the main reasons that Dragonlance was put into the SAGA system had to do with Corey Solomon and that dreadful D&D movie. You see, Corey had been sold the movie rights to D&D for a song, because he was the friend of the brother of Lorraine Williams, the head of TSR. After Corey had the rights, it occurred to management at TSR that he might be able to use them to make a DL movie. There were some nibbles from Fox and some other major Hollywood players (including the Jim Henson people) interested in DL at the time. TSR decided they had to protect DL so that Corey could not claim it and their solution was to switch DL to a different system, namely SAGA.


Having obtained the rights, Solomon had to obtain financing to get the film made, according to the suit:


From 1993 through 1997, Solomon worked hard to obtain financing for a Dungeons & Dragons motion picture and to develop the material into a motion picture or television series. He conducted extensive market research on the potential audience for a Dungeons & Dragons motion picture. He prepared lengthy informational memoranda and financial projections for prospective investors. He solicited and secured investors. He negotiated various production and distribution deals. He hired screenwriters and developed scripts, treatments and other preproduction materials.


Solomon originally invested his own money in the project, but after he realized he would need more funding, he started shopping the project around Hollywood. He negotiated and worked with some of the biggest producers, production companies and studios in Hollywood. He developed special effects for the film. He drummed up interest among actors, including Academy-Award winning actor Jeremy Irons, and rising stars Marlon Wayans and Thora Birch, all of whom would eventually star in the film. He scouted locations. He hired an established producer, acquired foreign investors, put in some more of his own money and acquired a bank loan. 


Although Solomon originally had intended on only producing the film, he was persuaded to take the helm as director, in part because he knew the Dungeons & Dragons material better than anyone else. Although the budget of the film was not huge, Solomon was able to get various deferments from actors, special effects personnel, and others, and effectively make a medium-budget film on a relatively small budget.


Universal Enters the Picture


The "studios and big film makers" that TSR talked to but was "never really comfortable making a deal with" was a reference to Gary Gygax's efforts to launch Dungeons and Dragons Entertainment on the West Coast. Gygax explained to Allen Rausch in a GameSpy interview:

 

I was pretty much boxed out of the running of the company because the two guys, who between them had a controlling interest, thought they could run the company better than I could. I was set up because I could manage. In 1982 Nobody on the West Coast would deal with TSR, but they had me start a new corporation called "Dungeons and Dragons Entertainment." It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get to be recognized as someone who was for real and not just a civilian, shall we say, in entertainment. Eventually, though, we got the cartoon show going (on CBS) and I had a number of other projects in the works.


One of those projects was a Dungeons & Dragons film.  As relayed by Gygax to Ciro Alessandro Sacco


As the CEO of Dungeons & Dragons Entertainment Corp. I was meeting with Mr. Sid Shineberg, President of Universal in 1984. I had made the appointment to discuss a motion picture based on the game. In the course of that hour-plus long meeting, Mr. Shineberg said, and I quote as nearly as memory permits, the following: "We would like to acquire you (TSR/D&D Entertainment), joint venture with you, or engage in just about any co-venture you name".  Of course I was knocked back on my mental heels, but I think I kept a poker face. What an opportunity, I thought. 


Then the reality of the Blumes came to cloud the rosy vistas I had glimpsed. I thanked him, explained that I held only a minority ownership in TSR, but assured Mr. Shineberg that I would relate Universal's interest to the Board of Directors at its next monthly meeting. Even as I said that I knew there would be no positive response from the Blumes. That proved to be the case.


As a positive, though, I took from that meeting a positive assurance that Universal would give D&D Entertainment a very positive look when it came time to present a major motion picture project I was working on.


Right after the meeting with Mr. Shineberg, I met with Orson Wells. He subsequently agreed to become a part of the project, take the main supporting role. Not many weeks later I met with Edgar Gross, then the Executive Producer for John Boorman, and after another meeting that was moving forward too, with a date to be set to meet with Mr. Boorman to present the script and see if he would produce and direct. With that done, all that remained was to take the package to Universal, meet again with Mr. Shineberg. A very strong prospect for getting a deal indeed, all that. Before I could go further down that road I had to return to Lake Geneva because of the financial crisis at TSR (1984).


Gygax left TSR shortly thereafter when Lorraine Williams took over. That's right around when TSR began having problems, and the relationship between Solomon and TSR became strained according to the suit:


The process of producing the film, however, was tumultuous. In 1997, TSR was strapped for cash. In or about May 1997, Wizards, a company that published role-playing games, card games and board games, purchased TSR. The relationship between Sweetpea and Wizards was rocky from the start. In early 1997, before Wizards acquired TSR, Sweetpea began developing a Dungeons & Dragons television series. Sweetpea secured TSR’s assurances that it would cooperate in good faith to negotiate an amendment to the Agreement that would grant Sweetpea the right to produce a television series. Sweetpea drafted a long-form agreement memorializing the parties’ agreement, and began investing large amounts of time and money in development of the television series.


Gygax's interview with Sacco further illustrates the connection between Lorraine Williams and the Dungeons & Dragons film:


Her brother, Flint Dille, was a friend of mine. He and I had co-authored four multi-path fantasy adventure game books and he was the co-creator of the film script mentioned earlier. Thus I had met his sister, Lorraine, her husband Jim and considered her a trustworthy person.


Flint Dille, co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons film script, was brother to Lorraine Williams, CEO of TSR. Solomon was friends with Dille, and that was Solomon's opening to claim the Dungeons & Dragons movie rights. TSR would have second thoughts about this agreement.


TSR is Unhappy and so is WOTC


TSR commenced legal action in 1998 against Sweetpea for failing to commence principal photography, reverting the rights to TSR. A settlement was agreed upon, requiring Sweetpea to create a movie within the five-year time frame. This was not the first time Sweetpea and the D&D rights owner have had a disagreement; Warner Bros. approached Hasbro about a Chainmail movie and Hasbro passed. Solomon responded:


We have made three pictures so far, and we’re going to make more–including the tentpole project that is currently in advanced stages of development with Warner Bros. This is nothing but shameless opportunism on the part of Hasbro, an effort to use the Court and the legal process in an attempt to delay the project. We intend to deal with them quickly and firmly and we are confident we will prevail – just as we did in the 1990’s, when the last legal challenge ended with a confirmation of Sweetpea’s rights.


According to the suit, Wizards of the Coast was unhappy with TSR's arrangement:


Even though Wizards purchased TSR with full knowledge of the agreement between TSR and Sweetpea, after Wizards acquired TSR it refused to even respond to Sweetpea’s requests to execute the longform agreement. Wizards’ radio silence was a thinly-veiled attempted to run out the clock on the period during which Sweetpea was required to begin principal photography on a Dungeons & Dragons motion picture or television program or risk potential reversion of certain rights under the Agreement.


More alarming is that the Dungeons & Dragons movie was never really the end goal for Sweetpea Entertainment. According to the suit, the movie was produced merely to retain the rights -- their original vision was a television project:


Although Sweetpea had already invested 60,000 hours and $2 million in the television project, it quickly shifted its focus to producing a Dungeons & Dragons live-action theatrical motion picture. Wizards-controlled TSR began to meddle and interfere with the production. For example, TSR complained that the budget was too low, even though it had no contractual right to do so, and it refused to grant Sweetpea’s request for an extension for the principal photography deadline to take advantage of spring flowers in Romania, where the motion picture was being filmed...Sweetpea began principal photography on the motion picture before the reversionary deadline expired. It invited TSR to observe the production, but TSR refused to send a representative. 


Instead, TSR presented Sweetpea with a low-ball offer to try to buy back Sweetpea’s film rights. When Sweetpea rejected the offer, TSR resorted to making the spurious claim that principal photography was not actually principal photography and that Sweetpea’s film rights had reverted back to TSR. When TSR’s attempt to use the threat of litigation to re-negotiate the terms of the Agreement failed to work, TSR filed a lawsuit for declaratory relief seeking control of Sweetpea’s film rights.


With Gygax ousted and no longer capable of shepherding the Dungeons & Dragons media rights, Flint Dille convinced Lorraine Williams to give the movie rights to his friend, Courtney Solomon. Solomon began working on a television series and, when TSR shifted hands to Wizards of the Coast (along with the exit of Lorraine Williams), the company changed its mind in the hope of the rights running out -- but to retain them, Solomon made the awful D&D movie instead.


The Real Power Behind Sweetpea Entertainment


Given that Wizards of the Coast cooperated with Sweetpea Entertainment on the last D&D-themed movie (even producing a poorly-received 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons supplement) it seemed that the legal battles weren’t between Wizards of the Coast and Sweetpea, but rather two larger media companies lurking on the sidelines.


Sweetpea Entertainment filed a motion for a summary judgment, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The essence of Wizards of the Coast's parent company, Hasbro, lawsuit was that Sweetpea infringed on Hasbro’s copyrights and trademarks relating to the Dungeons & Dragons brand  by developing a sequel to its 2000 film Dungeons & Dragons. Because Sweetpea's license depended on releasing a film sequel within a specified period of time, Hasbro claimed the rights reverted to Wizards of the Coast. Specifically, Hasbro claimed that the made-for-TV sequels to the original Dungeons & Dragons film did not constitute sequels and thus did not extend the life of the agreement. Sweetpea disagreed:


That reversion of rights, however, only occurs if Hasbro provides Sweetpea with written notice of the potential termination of the license. Moreover, termination of Sweetpea’s license is only effective if Sweetpea does not commence principal photography of a sequel within 60 days after receiving the written notice. In other words, Hasbro was required to give Sweetpea notice and an opportunity to cure. Hasbro has never provided written notice of its intent to terminate the license, nor has Hasbro provided Sweetpea an opportunity to cure, and therefore Sweetpea is still licensed under the license agreement. Sweetpea’s license is fatal to each claim in the Complaint. Summary judgment, therefore, must be granted on each claim in light of the license agreement.


The motion also mentioned that Hasbro alleged there were "1,500 copyrights" in Sweetpea's movie script (based off the game Chainmail), but that there was "no evidence that Chainmail —or any other work— contains specific elements that are also present in any Hasbro copyrighted work." As Wikipedia explains, the medieval miniature wargame Chainmail was the predecessor to Dungeons & Dragons:


Dungeons & Dragons began as a Chainmail variant, and Chainmail pioneered many concepts later used in Dungeons & Dragons, including armor class and levels, as well as various spells, monsters and magical powers...Dave Arneson used Chainmail in his Blackmoor campaign, and many elements of Chainmail were carried over wholesale into Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in 1974. In fact, the original edition of D&D required that the reader own a copy of Chainmail (as with Outdoor Survivial). The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons frequently defers to Chainmail, for example in the rules for elves and hobbits, in the "Invisibility" and "Conjure Elemental" spells, for the special abilities of monsters, specifically for the text of many monsters including goblins and ghouls, in the magic items descriptions (e.g. "Horn of Blasting") and in the naval combat rules.


At heart was the argument as to how much Chainmail is in Dungeons & Dragons. Sweetpea argued that the fact that the company was in discussions with Warner Bros. about creating a film based on Chainmail was enough to grant a summary judgment in favor of Sweetpea.


Warner Bros. Steps Out from Behind the Curtain


In June 2013 Sweetpea filed a motion for a summary judgment. Its defense?


Here, there is no evidence that Sweetpea has engaged in any actual or imminent violation of Hasbro’s copyrights or trademarks. There is no evidence that Sweetpea has filmed a new sequel to Dungeons & Dragons or that the new sequel contains protected elements of copyright or trademarked work. Despite having a copy of the Chainmail script, Hasbro has no evidence of (and has not alleged) any copyright or trademark violation based on the Chainmail script. At this stage, Hasbro can only speculate that Sweetpea might violate Hasbro’s copyrights or trademarks, although they have not specified which copyrights or trademarks.


It turns out that Hasbro wasn't just speculating


Ahead of this trial, Warner Bros purchased Solomon and Sweetpea’s D&D rights for around $4 million plus another $1 million for legal fees. That is a fact Warners’ Biz Affairs SVP Jun Oh implicitly admitted to when asked Monday whether “Warner Bros has a written, signed agreement with Sweetpea to co-control this very litigation.”


Judge Dolly Gee encouraged the parties to come to an agreement rather than wait for her decision:


The rights between the two parties are complicated. There are two possible outcomes for a trial: One side wins, one side loses, or both sides are unhappy.


Sure enough, parties filed papers in California federal court dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice:


Warner Bros. Pictures, Hasbro’s Allspark Pictures and Sweetpea Entertainment are moving forward on a feature film franchise based on Dungeons & Dragons, the world’s most popular role playing game. Hasbro’s Brian Goldner and Stephen Davis, Courtney Solomon and Allan Zeman of Sweetpea Entertainment, and Roy Lee (“The LEGO Movie,” “How to Train Your Dragon”) are attached as producers. Highlighting the priority being given to the project, Warner Bros.Pictures already has a script, written by David Leslie Johnson (“The Conjuring 2,” “Wrath of the Titans”)

...

Today’s announcement reflects the resolution of Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast LLC’s complaint against Sweetpea Entertainment, Inc. and Sweetpea BVI, Ltd. and the counterclaims filed by Sweetpea against Hasbro in May 2013 related to the Dungeons & Dragon brand. Solomon and Zeman will be attached to produce all Warner Bros.-produced Dungeons & Dragons film and television productions. All rights for future Dungeons & Dragons productions have been unified and returned to Wizards of the Coast, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hasbro.


So it seems in the end, everyone won.  Well, everyone except Universal, who almost had the rights to D&D in their grasp way back in 1984. Although all the other parties have moved forward, the Hollywood Reporter states that it's unclear whether Universal has signed off on this deal.


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