Inside the Decades Long Battle For 'Buck Rogers' (Exclusive)

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Inside the Decades-Long Battle Over ‘Buck Rogers’ (Exclusive)

In the fondly remembered 1970s TV series “Buck Rogers,” the astronaut of the title spends hundreds of years in cryogenic suspension before awakening in a dark future he barely understands. And, as it happens, the battle over the rights to the iconic pulp science fiction character feels like it has lasted at least that long.

The character, introduced in a 1928 novel and off screen since the NBC series went off air in 1981 after two seasons, is now in the center of a heated legal battle over who has the legal right to bring Buck back to the screen.

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In one corner, Legendary Entertainment deep in development on a new “Buck Rogers” TV series with key talent on board, including George Clooney, who will executive produce with Grant Heslov and may also star. In the other corner is David Ellison’s Skydance Media, which is developing its own reboot but with a murkier legal claim to the Buck Rogers story, according to numerous legal documents reviewed by TheWrap.

Richard Thompson, a noted entertainment IP lawyer who has worked with the Buck Rogers franchise in the past, said the case offers a cautionary tale for creators to do due diligence on rights deals. “In the current environment where intellectual property is a highly sought-after commodity, it is important that all sides check the rights they are buying and selling,” he told TheWrap. “It is easy for people even by accident to misrepresent the status of copyrights and trademarks, and a few bad eggs who knowingly stretch the truth about what they own can make it hard for all of us to do business.”

Legendary has been working with the estate of Chicago newspaper publisher John F. Dille, who developed the concept into a serialized comic strip in 1929 called based on Philip Francis Nowlan’s 1928 novella “Armageddon 2419 A.D.”The story, essentially Rip Van Winkle in the future, follows Anthony Rogers, a mining engineer from the 20th century who awakens from suspended animation after 500 years to find himself in the middle of a planetary war.

Dille bought out Nowlan and then developed the character for comic books, movie serials, radio dramas, and the aforementioned television series. Nowlan passed away in 1940 and his widow assigned all remaining rights to Dille.

Sometime in the 2000s, Brian and Diane McDevitt, who claim to be the grandchildren of Nowlan, began exploring the possibility that they could reclaim their grandfather’s rights under revised copyright laws. But the copyright for “Armageddon 2419 A.D” was allowed to expire in 1959, so there was no copyright for the McDevitts to reclaim.

But on Feb. 2, Diane McDevitt’s attorney, Neville Johnson, sent a “cease and desist” letter to Legendary, claiming that contrary to Legendary’s announced “Buck Rogers” plans, his clients actually owned the rights to the character. The letter was sent in response to the news on Jan. 28 that Clooney had signed on to the Legendary project. The letter, the second threatening letter the Nowlan Family Trust had sent to Legendary’s EVP of Business Affairs Michael Ross, said the Nowlan Family Trust had a deal with Skydance to use the Buck Rogers IP.

“We have secured the rights we need to proceed with our project and the company will not comment any further on these baseless claims,” Legendary said via a spokesperson in response to the Feb. 2 letter. “This same party has been claiming for years that they have rights which they do not have and have been trying to inhibit projects based on rights they do not legally control.”

“Transformers” producer Don Murphy, who is producing the Legendary project with Susan Montford and Flint Dille (grandson of John F. Dille), dismissed the Skydance project as interlopers on the Buck Rogers rights. “The Nowlans are not even the Nowlans, they are McDevitts, and they have been trying to con their way into Buck Rogers for a generation,” Murphy told TheWrap in a statement. “Fortunately, the courts have recognized their game playing and they don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

In a letter exclusively obtained by TheWrap, Legendary’s law firm responded by saying the Nowlan Family Trust did not have rights to Buck Rogers and that Legendary was moving forward with their project as planned.

In the more than two months since, Johnson has not challenged Legendary’s statement.

Johnson did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. Representatives for Skydance declined to respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

In the past, Brian McDevitt has faced a host of legal issues and has been disbarred from practicing law in three different states — New Jersey, Florida, and Pennsylvania. McDevitt has not responded to TheWrap’s request for comment.

When contacted directly by TheWrap, Diane McDevitt referred to a number of legal cases, including a Los Angeles Superior Court case, San Mateo Superior Court case and a case in the Eastern District Court in the State of Pennsylvania. TheWrap reviewed the cases, none of which mentioned the McDevitts having the claimed Buck Rogers rights, either previously or presently. When pressed further, McDevitt declined to respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

In addition to his ties to the Dille Family Trust Beneficiary Flint Dille is a successful screenwriter whose past credits include the 1980s “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” animated television shows, and 1986’s “Transformers: The Movie.”

“People need to understand that the court system is overtaxed and bad guys will try to steal their valuable intellectual property when they aren’t looking,” Flint Dille said in a statement to TheWrap. “The McDevitts have consistently misled people, including my sister and myself. A twice disbarred attorney thinks nothing of lying to judge after judge in the hope that they can get one asleep enough at the wheel to agree with their bogus filings. My grandfather, father, sister and I worked so hard for decades to create, protect and popularize Buck Rogers but it has been quite the mixed blessing since we continue to have to fight off false allegations and pretenders.”

In 2013, the Dilles were in talks for a live-action Buck Rogers series with the SyFy Channel, according to three insiders with knowledge of the project. The McDevitts and their lawyer, Johnson, sent threatening letters to everyone involved, the three insiders also said, and SyFy insisted that the dispute be resolved before proceeding. The Dilles engaged the McDevitts, and after much back and forth, a deal was reached. However, when it came time to sign, the McDevitts balked, and the SyFy deal fell apart.

Two years later, the Dilles were then in talks with DreamWorks Animation for an animated “Buck Rogers” film and series. The McDevitts and Johnson again sent threatening letters. This time, DWA ignored the letters. The McDevitts backed down, but talks broke down with the studio and a deal was never struck, according to all three insiders.

Diane McDevitt next approached a friend of Johnson’s, Joel Gotler, a successful book agent for three decades. Through, she asked Gotler to represent the Buck Rogers property. She assured Gotler that she and her brother had the rights, according to three insiders. Gotler would spend five months representing the property before he found out that Johnson and McDevitt had misled him, according to three insiders.

Gotler declined to respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

McDevitt met with a former CAA agent-turned-writer, Tony Krantz, the son of novelist Judith Krantz. He also was told by Johnson that McDevitt controlled the rights to Buck Rogers, according to three insiders. Krantz pitched McDevitt an extensive and detailed version of the story that an insider described as very “Game of Thrones” in tone. McDevitt loved the take and wanted to pitch it to networks. She convinced Krantz to write an entire pilot script on spec, as well as a series bible. Krantz later discovered the rights were tied up in litigation, according to the three insiders.

Krantz declined to respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

This brings us to the latest attempt by McDevitt to move forward with a Buck Rogers project without a clear legal claim to the IP. Johnson introduced McDevitt to Jeff Berg, former head of ICM, and assured Berg that she had the rights to Buck Rogers, according to the three insiders. Berg started making calls, found interest at Skydance Entertainment, and talks began, according to the three insiders. Berg declined to respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

On Feb. 20, 2019, a federal bankruptcy judge in Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the Dille Family Trust as the sole owners of the Buck Rogers rights, clearing the way for Legendary to proceed. Legendary then announced the hiring of Brian Vaughan to write the pilot and that George Clooney boarded the project with an eye to star.

Where does that leave Skydance? According to two other insiders with knowledge of the Skydance project, no talent has been hired, nor involved and currently attached to the Skydance project.

Umberto Gonzalez