“Fast and Furious” Producer Races to Court

May 15, 2019

The summer blockbuster season already appears to be in full swing. As Avengers: Endgame continues to shatter box office records, another famous film franchise, with an entry planned later this summer, finds itself at the center of a brewing legal battle that could have interesting implications for movie studios continuing to build their film franchise brands. Neal Moritz, a producer of the original The Fast and the Furious film, is claiming that Universal Pictures has breached agreements to produce the upcoming film, Hobbs and Shaw. He has continued to be involved in the franchise as a producer based on a Pay-or-Play contract which operates to have him be paid for sequels in the franchise even if he does not actually work on the film.

The Fast and Furious film franchise began in 2001 with the original entry The Fast and the Furious, a story of illegal street racers who had a side-job hijacking semi-trucks. The franchise almost fizzled out after the 3rd entry carried little connection to the existing franchise – only a shared title and a short cameo at the end. They managed to release a 4th film by heavily pushing the return of the original cast in its marketing, with the 5th film becoming a breakout entry in the series. The group of street racers now show up in globetrotting locations with action sequences that rival the Mission: Impossible franchise. They have gone on to release a total of 8 films, grossing over $5 billion, with 3 more films planned in the coming years, including this summer’s Hobbs and Shaw.

According to Moritz’s complaint, as production began on Hobbs and Shaw, Moritz and Universal Pictures reached a purported oral agreement for him to continue serving as a producer on the film as a spin-off of the popular franchise. He contends these types of oral agreements were typical of the parties’ approach to new entries in the series with a written memorialization coming soon thereafter. For this entry though, right before filming was set to begin, Universal demanded he either take a lower paycheck than they originally agreed or be dropped from the project altogether. He declined so they made good on their promise and dropped him from the film. He alleges this amounts to a breach of not only the oral agreement but also the written agreement already signed for the 8th through 10th entries in the series. The wrinkle is when this agreement was signed these 8th through 10th entries were untitled “sequels or remakes” planned for the series, with no specific mention of spin-offs.

Movie “universes” involving standalone character films, as well as main line entries, are not a completely new concept, but the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to have jump-started every studio into building their own universe. Interestingly, unlike the characters for the previously mentioned 3rd entry, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, the characters/actors for Hobbs and Shaw have already appeared in numerous main entries in the series. As for subject matter, at this point is a movie series about using cars to steal a vault from a police station in Rio de Janeiro (Fast Five), protecting Los Angeles from drones that can assassinate people using a computer program to track them (Furious 7), and hijacking a nuclear submarine (Fate of the Furious) even related to street racing anymore?

The case is currently headed for arbitration in June but hopefully it can make it to trial or adjudication on the merits so we can finally find out what legally makes a movie a sequel.

Image source: Sergio Perez/REUTERS

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