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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Who Owns the ‘Homicidal Fish Man’ Movie?

LOS ANGELES (CN) - The makers of a movie about a "homicidal fish man" told a federal judge that a director they ousted from the project is not entitled to any rights in the upcoming horror-thriller.

Anvil Entertainment, of Sherman Oaks, its principal and talent manager Mike De Trana, and screenwriter Josh Burnell sued Keegan Wilcox and his loanout company One Hundred To One Productions on Monday, seeking declaratory relief.

"We're incredibly disappointed that it's gotten to this point," Burnell wrote to Courthouse News in an email. "However, we feel that the law is on our side, that we will win."

The filmmakers say Wilcox came up with the idea for the story about a fish man, and that Burnell wrote the screenplay, which was filmed this summer at Big Bear Lake, as "House By the Lake."

Filmmaker Adam Gierasch signed on to direct the movie in August, The Wrap reported at that time, with James Callis, Anne Dudek, Amiah Miller and Michael Bowen making up the cast.

The movie tells the story of family whose young autistic daughter becomes obsessed with what The Wrap described as a "mysterious friend," while the family is vacationing. There is no mention in the logline of a "homicidal fish man."

According to the lawsuit, both Wilcox and Burnell were clients at Anvil this year when Wilcox pitched the idea for the fish man project to De Trana, who then paired the director with Burnell.

Anvil's complaint says that De Trana signed on to produce the movie that Wilcox would direct. Burnell then worked on the screenplay, registering a copy of the "Fish Man" script with the Writers Guild of America.

But Anvil, De Trana and Burnell say in the lawsuit that Wilcox showed up late to meetings, failed to deliver creative materials or notes on Burnell's screenplay, and "ultimately pressed for a vision of the project that was incompatible with that of Burnell and De Trana."

One month before "House By the Lake" was scheduled to start shooting, Wilcox was still on board, the complaint states. During that time, he allegedly pressured Anvil to option the screenplay, to establish a clean chain of title for potential investors.

Anvil allegedly drew up a $1 option agreement that allowed the company to buy rights to the screenplay for $10.

Though he is principal of Anvil, De Trana was also a grantor of the option, according to the complaint. That meant that the $1 option fee was divided between the producer, Wilcox and Burnell.

The parties executed the agreement on July 10, 2014, and Anvil paid Wilcox his 33 cents, the complaint states.

Anvil then entered into an agreement to hire Wilcox to direct the film, only to fire him two days later, on July 15, agreeing to pay him a $1,000 director's fee and give him "Story By" credit on the finished film, the filing states.

The day after Wilcox was ousted, Burnell registered a new copy of the screenplay, now called "Gills," with the Writers Guild of America and with the U.S. Copyright Office, according to the lawsuit.

"On or about Aug. 18, 2014, defendant Wilcox, through his attorney, communicated to plaintiffs and a third party that plaintiff had 'misappropriated and infringed Mr. Wilcox's copyrightable materials and contributions in and to his original creative expressions and content," the complaint states.

Wilcox demanded $7,000 within seven business days, and assurances that the filmmakers would not include a "'fish man' monster, or monster of any oceanic or piscine origins,'" according to the complaint.

The lawsuit calls Wilcox's allegations "groundless" because he signed over rights to Anvil, and adds that creative contributions to the project "do not contain the minimal degree of creativity required under the Copyright Act."

Anvil, De Trana and Burnell are represented by Jordan Susman of Freedman & Taitelman.

Wilcox did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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