LOS ANGELES (CN) — A retired NASA engineer claims he sold Universal Pictures the right to turn his memoir “Rocket Boys” into the movie “October Sky,” but not into a stage play, and now Universal is threatening to sue him for making a play out of his own book.
Homer Hickam sued Universal Pictures, its president Jimmy Horowitz, and vice president of live theatricals Chris Herzberger, on June 2 in Superior Court.
Hickam worked for the Army Missile Command from 1971 to 1981 and for NASA from 1981 to 1998, in spacecraft design and crew training.
His 1998 memoir “Rocket Boys” recounted his days growing up in West Virginia, longing to build rockets rather than work in a coal mine. He sold rights to the unpublished work to Universal in 1996, and the studio turned it into the film “October Sky” in 1999.
Hickam says in the lawsuit that the film got “tepid box office” revenue and “little support from Universal.”
Hickam says he sold the rights for the one movie, not for a stage play, not for a musical, and not for his life, nor events in it, beyond 1960, when the memoir ends.
Now Universal claims it owns rights to “any and all stories he may write about his life, no matter when they happened,” and that it will “punish him if he ever said a word about Universal’s improper conduct.”
Hickam, 73, says in the lengthy complaint that he’s kept interest in the film alive through promotions, appearances, and even developed a curriculum around it for grade school teachers. In 2006, he says, he was approached by a Broadway musical writing team, who sold him on the idea of a live production. He says he contacted Universal and made a new agreement, giving him exclusive rights to a stage production of “Rocket Boys” for five years, from which Universal would get 50 percent of revenue.
Hickam says that after a $500,000 investment and years of work, “Rocket Boys,” the musical, was ready for Broadway in the summer of 2015. After seeing that it got good reviews in previews, Hickam said, Universal decided to do its own musical version of the show and threatened to sue him if he presented his.
In 2013, after Hickam had lost his exclusive rights, Universal licensed stage rights to “October Sky” to Marriott International. Hickam says he consulted with Universal on its project, for free, but it decided two stage shows were too many, so it sent him a cease and desist letter on June 6, 2015, saying Universal president Horowitz was developing a stage version.
Universal had the brass to take photos off Hickam’s website and used them to promote its own production, despite his own cease and desist letters, Hickam says.
He claims that Universal’s version “egregiously copied” scenes, language, sequences and motifs from his own musical, and “used language exclusively written for the ‘Rocket Boys’ musical which were not in the memoir or the motion picture … while also telling critics, reviewers and other entities that Hickam fully supported Universal’s musical.”
Hickam says he continued to object privately and publicly, and on March 1 he received a letter from Universal threatening that if he did not shut up and cooperate, Universal would assert rights to his life story from before he was born to beyond his death.
Hickam says that would include his most recent novel about his parents, which he is shopping around for movie rights, and that Universal’s claim puts a cloud on those efforts.
Hickam calls it a virtual assault on his civil rights.
“Universal attempted to place an all-encompassing muzzle on Hickam, and prohibit him from publishing or authorizing another person to publish, any oral or written public statement concerning the ‘October Sky’ motion picture, ‘October Sky’ musical, Universal or any employee of Universal without Universal’s prior written consent. In essence … to deprive Hickam of his First Amendment right of free speech while simultaneously placing on him an impossible task, to control for all time every person on the planet to keep any of them publishing, writing, or saying anything about Universal.”
He seeks damages and punitive damages on 10 counts, breach of contract, fraud, misappropriation of name and identity, intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, unfair competition and aiding and abetting breach of fiduciary duty.
He is represented by David Tarlow with Ervin Cohen & Jessup of Beverly Hills, who did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Universal vice president of communications Teri Everett said the company does not comment on litigation.
Universal City Studios also is named as a defendant.
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