Monday, January 19, 2015

Space Wars

Or how Steven Spielberg almost ended up directing 2010, and how MGM-UA had to invoke legal action to outfox their rival. Averting space war occurs - it seems - in courts.

Close Contact.

Before Arthur C. Clarke's book 2010: Odyssey Two was even published, the major movie studios in Hollywood were already jockeying for position regarding the rights to the title.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, then rather recently combined with United Artists, were - according to the Hollywood magazine - expected to hand over a rather hefty and very handsome seven-figure sum to the semi-failed-recluse author for the screen rights.

As late as November of 1982 - and all throughout the very tail end of the year - the erstwhile MGM, now MGM-UA, were adamant: they were to be the producer, and none other than Stanley Kubrick was to occupy the director's seat.

After a lunch meeting with author Clarke and Clarke's lawyer Lou Blau, MGM-UA studio president Freddie Fields went as far as stating that anything else would simply be impossible, and "that anyone who buys the second book has to deal with 'em [Kubrick and MGM]".

"We're joined at the hip to Kubrick," he said, "we can't make the movie without him, he can't make it without us." He mentioned that "such a deal was made at the time Metro bought the rights to [Clarke's 2001] A Space Odyssey."

That is what MGM thought.

21st Century Fox

Producer Julia Phillips.
Meanwhile 20th Century-Fox had other ideas. Knowing full well that MGM had become, in the words of MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian, "primarily a hotel company", Fox proceeded to place a bid for the screen rights to Clarke's representative Scott Meredith. Manager Sherry Lansing's last executive decision as production president at Fox was to announce the production of the "film version" of 2010: Odyssey Two. This revelation was met with slightly reserved though somewhat enthusiastic nods of approval since it was widely known in the business that MGM studios were in dire financial straits at the time.

Producer for the movie, Lansing said, was to be Julia Phillips - the Oscar-winning producer behind The StingTaxi Driver and the Steven Spielberg-directed movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind - who had recently been hired on a two-year, five-movie contract by 20th Century-Fox. Phillips had been hired by none other than Lansing herself, who called the sequel "an auspicious beginning" of the Phillips-Fox deal. The movie was likely to be "a big budget production," Phillips said. She also said Fox would be in no hurry to make the movie. "Effects have to be developed and that takes a long time. I don't mind waiting. Close Encounters took four years to make," she reminded.

Originally MGM and Stanley Kubrick had "first film" rights to any possible sequel(s) to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but according to information from Twentieth Century-Fox the strapped-for-cash movie studio MGM had "passed on the costly project", and that Twentieth Century-Fox were simply bidding for the screen rights in the absence of any other serious contenders.

Like clockwork, in Mid-December of 1982, the Hollywood trade paper Variety reported on its front page that Twentieth Century-Fox would produce the "sequel to 2001". The article in the paper stated that Julia Phillips had left MGM and been hired by Fox to produce five movies, the first of which was to the "sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey".

Exciting news in and of itself, but nothing extraordinarily uncommon. No-one in the industry thought anything strange of it, but rather saw it as 'business as usual'.

Until Freddie Fields heard the news, that is.

Fields of Honour

Producer Freddie Fields.
Upon hearing Twentieth Century-Fox's disclosure, production chief Fields erupted in volcanic fashion. "We are shocked over the blatant publicity ploy perpetrated by Miss Phillips," the former boxer thundered. "It is astonishing that either Fox or Miss Phillips believe that they have acquired the rights to 2010: Odyssey Two from Arthur C. Clarke since Mr. Clarke and his representatives are fully aware of the fact that by written agreement those rights are clearly owned by MGM/UA and Stanley Kubrick's Polaris Productions."

Surely not a communique you would want to be at the receiving end of.

But Fields wasn't done with Fox yet, and especially not with Phillips. He sent out a fuming public bulletin all over Hollywood but addressed directly to her, stating in no uncertain terms MGM "intends to take all actions necessary to protect its clearly established rights with regard to a proposed production by Miss Phillips and Fox of the sequel to MGM's hit 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey" and any possible sequels and spin-offs. Fields said his company "has no intention of refusing the chance to zoom into production with 2010."

20th Century-Fox and Phillips had foreseen this reaction and took the proclamation in stride, and responded publicly later the same day with a carefully worded prepared statement, read by producer Phillips herself.

"A cornerstone of my career has been my integrity, and I've never done business by 'publicity ploys' in my life," she said. "Twentieth Century-Fox and I were both assured repeatedly by Clarke and Clarke's representative Scott Meredith that these rights are free and clear. A sizeable offer has been made and accepted, and we have absolutely no reason to believe that the situation has changed in any way. We have no further comments at this time." She had also previously stated MGM "did nothing to acquire the project".

It was there, in a dubious legal wasteland, that the matter was left to languish for the remainder of the year.

Legal Limbo

During the next months a multitude of incompatible reports and strange news tidbits would trickle down to the press and subsequently be found in the Hollywood newspapers and magazines. Both MGM and Fox published information that they were 'the studio which was going to produce the movie, and that's final'.

Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford visiting Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka. 

Meanwhile Steven Spielberg himself was meeting with 2001 sequel author Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka in January of 1983. His official business was to do location work for his own sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Seemingly there were other items on his agenda, as well. At least that was the talk of Tinsel Town.

Perhaps in response to the rumors, in mid-January MGM production manager Freddie Fields made another announcement which was published in the Hollywood magazine in February. "The entire situation is straightened out," he said. "The film won't be made at Fox. We're making it here. The property was always ours. It still is." He also said the rights to the sequel were always acknowledged by MGM, most recently in 1981. "We therefore take exception to Miss Phillips' comments that MGM did nothing to acquire the project," he said.

Unperturbed, Fox proceeded to maintain they were still in the game. By this time it had become apparent that Kubrick was not interested in directing any sequel, regardless of who would produce it. However insiders in Hollywood were already talking about Spielberg's personal interest in directing the film. This seemed a fitting match, since Spielberg was already by then a director associated with sci-fi and fantastic tales. Further, in such a case the sequel would again unite Spielberg and Phillips who lastly produced Close Encounters of the Third Kind together, merely five years prior. This factoid was again met with reserved nods of approval.

By now it appeared the scale was tilting in favor of Fox. The only thing left for MGM-UA to do, it appeared, was to call in the lawyers.


Among those following the case it was assumed it would linger in court for a long time, and that it would be another drawn out affair like the USA vs. Paramount case, especially considering the property hailed from the halcyon past known as the 60s. In a surprisingly quick decision, however, the screen rights were awarded - or rather acknowledged to be the property of - MGM. With a stroke of the judge's gavel Fox, Phillips, and Spielberg were out of the game. Just like that.

2010 plus 1

Actually, the case never even proceeded to the bench. After consulting the fine print in the ancient documents, the lawyers agreed: MGM executive Frank Yablans now had total ownership of the movie rights.

In the aftermath, the parties involved were predictably both elated the debacle was over and filled with a sense of 'I-knew-it-all-along' verve.

"Fox never had a chance," MGM production chief Fields mused. "That announcement was like a joke."

Clarke's representative Scott Meredith was also very non-apologetic, and gave off the impression the entire thing was only a big misunderstanding. A befuddlement. A faux-pas. He said that Fox had simply "jumped the gun" and that Clarke's "preference had been MGM-UA all along, because they made 2001". So no hard feelings, right?

"My only question to Freddie was 'Can you [afford] a $50-million picture?", the reclusive author's agent said. "He said he could."

"I am sorry, I'm afraid I cannot let you phone home."

After all of the announcements and bids and legal wranglings had transpired we ended up with the movie we have today. The events do raise some rather interesting ruminations, though. Some might even offer considerable pause for thought.

Such as what would 2010 have looked like, had it been produced by Fox? Moreover, how would a director like Steven Spielberg have handled the source material? We know how he handled alien contact in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and we know how he pictured extra-terrestrials in E.T., but how would he have fared with the legacy of 2001?

E.T. made contact, after all.

Images ©1979-2004 Fox Entertainment, ©1983 Arthur C Clarke Foundation, ©2015 Odyssey Archive.

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