After Netflix negotiated mega raises for the main actors of its hit program “Stranger Things” in March of this year, short-film producer Charlie Kessler wants a piece of the pie. Kessler filed an action in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week for breach of an implied contract against “Stranger Things” creators Matt and Ross Duffer who he claims heard his pitch for a science fiction show at a film festival in 2014 and ran with it without his consent and without providing him just compensation.
“Stranger Things” debuted in July of 2016 and received eighteen Emmy nominations last year. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix is now paying lead actors Winona Ryder (Joyce Byers) and David Harbour (Jim Hopper) a whopping $350,000 per episode, and up to $250,000 an episode for its young adult stars.
Kessler alleges he discussed the short film he created entitled “Montauk” with the Duffer brothers at the Tribeca Films Festival in 2014, which is a science fiction work set in Montauk, New York. Montauk is home to an abandoned military base that is rumored to be haunted. Kessler contends the Duffer brothers misappropriated the concept of “Montauk” to produce “Stranger Things” without Kessler’s permission. Kessler also alleges “Stranger Things” was originally titled “The Montauk Project” and took place in New York, but was later renamed and set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. The Duffers’ attorney Alex Kohner issued a statement that the Duffers never saw “Montauk” and never discussed a project with Kessler. Kohner called Kessler’s complaint “completely meritless” and “an attempt to profit from other people’s creative and hard work.”
Although purely abstract ideas cannot be copyrighted, California does afford some protection to show pitches through contract law. To prevail, a plaintiff must establish that he or she prepared the work being pitched, disclosed it to the defendant, and had a reasonable expectation of payment in exchange for pitching the work which can be implied from the circumstances.
Whether Kessler will be able to demonstrate these elements remains to be seen. The Duffers’ response to the complaint will be due in early May. Kessler seeks monetary damages, injunctive relief, and punitive sanctions.