John Steinbeck heirs now feuding over Steven Spielberg 'Grapes of Wrath' adaptation

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Over the years, major Hollywood studios have flirted with making new adaptations of John Steinbeck's major works including The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden. But the long-running, messy dispute among the author's heirs has provided a headache for any film producer daring to move forward. On Friday, new court papers were filed that put alleged interference on movie deals front-and-center including a Steven Spielberg adaptation of Grapes of Wrath potentially starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

On one side of the battle are those who succeeded Elaine Steinbeck, the author's late third wife, who was the primary beneficiary of copyrights in her husband's will. In particular, Elaine's daughter, Waverly Scott, and agents at McIntosh & Otis, see themselves as being entitled to controlling Steinbeck's literary properties thanks to the will and later settlement agreements.

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John Steinbeck heirs now feuding over Steven Spielberg 'Grapes of Wrath' adaptation
The American writer John Steinbeck (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
The American writer John Steinbeck (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
'Of Mice and Men' by John Steinbeck, with John Mills, Niall MacGinnis and Claire Luce at the Apollo Theatre, London, July 1939. 'You let this guy alone an' get the hell out of here!' JM, 22 February 1908 Â 23 April 2005. NM, d. 1977. CL, 15 October 1903 Â 31 August 1989. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
US novelist John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Jane Darwell (1879 - 1967) as Ma Joad and Russell Simpson (1880 - 1959) as Pa Joad in the film 'The Grapes of Wrath', directed by John Ford and produced by 20th Century Fox. The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Steinbeck. (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)
1940: New York stage actor O Z Whitehead plays one of California's 200,000 migratory workers in a scene from the screen version of John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Title: Grapes Of Wrath Studio: 20th Century Fox Director: John Ford (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
12th June 1943: Paul Scofield playing Alex Morden (far right) is accused of murdering an enemy captain during a scene from 'The Moon Is Down', a John Steinbeck play presented by Georgie Wood. Original Publication: Picture Post - 1431 - Wee Georgie Wood Backs An Important Steinbeck Play - pub. 1943 (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)
1940: American actors Henry Fonda (1905 - 1982) and Jane Darwell (1879 - 1967) as Ma Joad talk outdoors in a still from the film, 'The Grapes of Wrath,' directed by John Ford and based upon the novel by John Steinbeck. (Photo by 20th Century Fox/Getty Images)
1st May 1943: British actor and impresario, Georgie Wood (centre) with stage producer Basil Langton (right) and Czech actor, Karel Stepaneck (left) during a rehearsal for 'The Moon Is Down', a John Steinbeck play concerning foreign invasion. Original Publication: Picture Post - 1431 - Wee Georgie Wood Backs An Important Steinbeck Play - pub. 1943 (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)
Macy Gray in Concert March 27, 2007 at the Gramercy Theater. Photo by Rachel Rique, AOL
(GERMANY OUT) Helmut Lange *19.01.1923-Schauspieler; BRDin dem Schauspiel 'Von Mäusen und Menschen' von John Steinbeck- 1960er Jahre (Photo by Bethke/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
1955: Raymond Massey (1896 - 1983) and James Dean (1931 - 1955) play a feuding father and son in 'East of Eden', directed by Elia Kazan and based on the novel by John Steinbeck. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) John Steinbeck, Writer, USA (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
1st June 1957: John Steinbeck (1902 - 1968), the American novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, with his wife. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Author and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, early 1960s. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
The American writer John Steinbeck with Commander Salata on board the liner 'Saturnia'. 9th April 1957 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
The American writer John Steinbeck with Commander Salata on board the liner 'Saturnia'. 9th April 1957 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Steinbeck, John *27.02.1902-20.12.1968+Schriftsteller, USANobelpreistraeger - mit seiner Frau Elaine auf dem FlughafenBerlin-Tempelhof- Dezember 1963 (Photo by Heinz Köster/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - DECEMBER 11: American Author John Steinbeck Receives The Nobel Prize Of Literature 1962, in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 11, 1962. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 25: American Author John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize Of Literature 1962, in the United States, on October 25, 1962. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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Then, there's the author's children, particularly Thom Steinbeck -; who made a deal in 1983 for royalties -; and his wife Gail Knight Steinbeck, who have fought for authority and a greater share. Thanks to the complexities of copyright law, particularly termination rights, their contentions have been the subject of numerous legal fights, including a big 2008 decision at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals as well an aborted petition before the California Labor Commissioner.

The Kaffaga camp now wants the legal madness to end. They are pushing for a judge to send a message to the Thom Steinbeck clan.

"In sum, the overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence demonstrates that Defendants have flouted the 1983 Agreement and the judicial decisions that have repeatedly concluded that the Estate holds the complete power and authority to control the exploitation of the Steinbeck Works," states a summary judgment brief. "It is time to put a halt to Defendants' harmful and lawless conduct once and for all."

According to Kaffaga, Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment tendered a financial offer in 2013 for film rights to East of Eden. Then, Gail threatened legal action and brought the California Labor Commissioner asserting that RWSG Literary Agency, a sub agent to McIntosh & Otis, was acting unlicensed.

"Gail also spoke to Anna Culp, an executive producer at Imagine who, along with Brian Grazer from Imagine, was publicly-reported as attached to the planned Universal/Imagine adaptation," states the brief. "Gail admitted that, in her conversation with Culp, she threatened that Thom and Blake would terminate film rights in East of Eden, stated that Universal/Imagine needed to speak to Gail because M&O did not represent Defendants, and 'put Brian Grazer on notice that we needed to sit down at the table.' If Imagine did not comply, she warned that, 'somebody could get in trouble.'"

In 2014, Universal and Imagine abandoned its East of Eden project, according to M&O, because of "major concerns" about the "constant threat of litigation."

Meanwhile, on behalf of Kaffaga and the Estate, M&O was negotiating with DreamWorks for an adaptation of Grapes of Wrath for Spielberg with Day-Lewis attached. Gail is said to have learned about this in 2013, then allegedly began to interfere before a confidential "side deal" was made. "Defendants engaged in a concerted campaign to undermine the Estate's authority over the exploitation of Steinbeck Works and succeeded in extracting their own payment from DreamWorks at the expense of the Estate," states the summary judgment memorandum. "This exorbitant payment that Defendants extracted from DreamWorks reduced the overall amount payable to the Estate."

Besides the claimed interference, Gail and Thom are accused of exploiting Steinbeck works without true authority. One of the examples given by plaintiffs is that Thom authored a screenplay adapted from his father's novella, The Pearl, and pursued a distribution agreement with Disney and others. Another is granting film rights to the Steinbeck short story, The Flight. Then, there's word how Gail or Thom granted permission to a Congressional candidate to use passages from Grapes of Wrath in a campaign advertising, "concealed their identity to obtain film rights to The Moon is Down, and told James Franco's CAA agent that the actor/filmmaker could have rights to Tortilla Flat.

The Kaffaga side asserts that their adversaries have already had a full opportunity to litigate their intellectual property theories, have made deals giving them as much financial benefit as they are going to get, and now want the judge to hold defendants liable for breach of contract, tortious interference and slander of title. They aim to get the judge to also make a declaratory judgment collaterally estopping the other side from contesting control over the exploitation of Steinbeck's works.

Quite a few Hollywood projects may hang in the balance. We'll provide update when opposition to this summary judgment is filed.


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