The lawsuit over the franchise rights to Friday the 13th entered a new phase last Friday, when Sean S. Cunningham was formally deposed under oath. Cunningham, the director and producer of the 1980 film Friday the 13th, was questioned during the deposition by Marc Toberoff, the attorney for writer Victor Miller. Miller, Friday the 13th’s lone credited screenwriter, has also been deposed.
In June 2016, Miller sent a notice of termination to producers, identified as Horror Inc. and The Manny Company, for the purpose of reclaiming the rights to the Friday the 13th property. While there are several issues related to copyright law at play in Miller’s filing, the key question at this juncture in the proceedings is whether Miller was an “employee” or an “independent contractor” when the 1980 film was developed and then went into production in 1979.
This was reflected in the questioning Cunningham received during this deposition, which took place inside a law office. During his deposition testimony, Cunningham reiterated his claim that his agreement with Miller, which was signed on June 4, 1979, was a “work-for-hire” arrangement. Cunningham also testified that Miller hadn’t completed a screenplay or even a treatment at this point, approximately three months before Friday the 13th started filming.
Cunningham also testified that he didn’t believe Miller was responsible for the creation of the iconic character Jason Voorhees, beyond the name itself. In my book, On Location in Blairstown: The Making of Friday the 13th, Miller stated that “Jason” was an amalgam of the names of his sons, Ian and Josh. Miller said that the Voorhees surname was inspired by Van Voorhees, a girl he’d known in high school.
Regarding Friday the 13th’s screenplay, Cunningham testified that his June 4, 1979, agreement with Miller covered the writing of a treatment and then a screenplay. Cunningham testified that he paid Miller “out of his own money” for the screenplay and the treatment. Cunningham testified that by July 4, 1979, when Cunningham placed the now infamous Friday the 13th advertisement in the trade paper Variety, all he’d seen from Miller was a treatment, not a screenplay. Miller’s name doesn’t appear in the Variety advertisement.
Cunningham has always maintained that the Variety advertisement was entirely a ploy to raise financing for the project, and Cunningham has long claimed that no completed screenplay existed at this point, approximately two months before Friday the 13th started filming.
To bolster his argument, Cunningham pointed that the first draft of Miller’s screenplay was titled A Long Night at Camp Blood, not Friday the 13th. Miller has countered that the Friday the 13th shooting script, which was dated August 21, 1979, was titled Friday 13, not Friday the 13th.
Regarding the creation of Jason, Cunningham argued that Miller isn’t entitled to be credited as the creator of the Jason Voorhees character, because Jason “was dead” in all of Miller’s screenplay drafts.
Now Miller’s trying to prove that Cunningham perjured himself during his deposition testimony. Miller’s attorney, Marc Toberoff, is presently searching for a former secretary of Cunningham’s who might corroborate Miller’s recounting of events. My book, On Location in Blairstown: The Making of Friday the 13th, was also extensively quoted by Toberoff during the deposition.
Toberoff is also searching for a specific filming draft of the Friday the 13th screenplay, which he hopes will prove the extent of Miller’s contribution, especially as it relates to the character of Jason, which is under copyright. Cunningham and Miller are the only witnesses who have been deposed so far.
Another challenge facing Miller is that he must be successful in gaining rights to both the North American and foreign rights, since the property would have little or no value to film studios without both. “Victor doesn’t want to control the entire Friday the 13th franchise, and that’s not what this is about,” says a source close to Miller. “If the lawsuit is successful, it would mean that Victor, as a writer, as a creator, would simply be able to negotiate a new deal, new terms, and to gain some leverage as an author over the existing franchise.”
On June 9, Miller intends to make a motion for summary judgment in court. If this fails, the court would likely assign a trial start date.