Federal Court Enjoins Reboots of “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files” On “1990’s Estoppel” Grounds

Big news from the West Coast in entertainment litigation. This morning, a federal court in California enjoined certain Hollywood studios and related companies from beginning production on the recently announced reboots of the 1990’s television series “Twin Peaks” and “The X-Files.” See Chambers v. Showtime Networks, et al, No. 4815162342 (M.D. Cal. April 1, 2015). The Plaintiff, Reginald Chambers, brought suit upon hearing news of the planned remakes of the aforementioned television programs. Chambers, a former denizen of the Usenet television forums in the 1990’s and a self-described “1990’s enthusiast,”claims he suffered bouts of severe depression, memory loss, and “unprompted wistful musings.” As a result, he sued in California state court under various theories of recovery, including negligence, fraud, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and the archaic “tortious interference with the past” cause of action (abrogated by most state courts and last invoked in the litigation which arose from the 1974 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby). Chambers also sought an injunction compelling a halt to the production of the two programs.

He sued what he called “a coterie of callous and temporally insensitive Hollywood defendants,” including Showtime Networks, Inc., CBS Corporation, and Lynch/Frost Productions, arising from the planned “Twin Peaks” reboot, and Twentieth Century Fox Television, Inc. and Ten Thirteen Productions as a result of “The X-Files” continuation. For their part, the defendants removed the case to federal court and filed various responsive pleadings, including a motion to dismiss on laches groundsThe Plaintiff’s claims against individual defendants Kyle MacLachlan and David Duchovny were dismissed in light of certain testimony from the defendants’ retained testifying expert, television critic Frederick Lowell, who opined that “television actors cannot be held accountable for their actions.” However, the federal court denied the corporate defendants’ motion to dismiss as premature and granted the motion for temporary injunction.

In supporting its conclusion, the court noted that “there is no finer episode of television in the 1990’s that ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,’ the award winning episode of the “The X-Files” released in 1995, and to dilute it with later, lesser works in the same series would be sanctionable at best.” Further, the court found that the ambiguity of the original 1991 “Twin Peaks” finale “cast such a wonderful pall over the television landscape at the time that to undo it now via a reboot would harm both Plaintiff and the general public at large.” Further, the court held:

The federal courts have always served as the gatekeepers of the nation’s nostalgia. See In re: Buddy Holly, 235 F. 201, 202 (5th Cir. 1958); see also Iron Butterfly v. Nixon, 257 F. Supp. 47, 47-49 (E.D.N.Y. 1969). As such, federal district courts may halt a defendant’s actions when they constitute either a threat to public memory or cherished institutions of popular culture. See Estate of Hitchcock v. Van Sant, 626 F.2d 97, 101-102 (9th Cir. 1998) (noting, in case involving remake of the 1960 film Psycho, the role of the federal courts as “the praetorian guards of beloved American cinema”). In the case at bar, the Plaintiff invokes a novel theory of “1990’s estoppel,” in which he contends that “what happened, happened” and that the popular culture of that decade cannot be relitigated by the Hollywood of today. In advancing this theory, the Plaintiff points to a number of cases in support of this conclusion. See Tennant v. Eccleston, 650 U.S. 199 (2009) (finding that “matters of temporal stability and nostalgia are within the jurisdiction of the federal courts”); see also Kurtz v. George Lucas, Lucasfilm Ltd., and Indus. Light & Magic, No. 2011-1138-THX (W.D.S.C. April 1, 2011) (finding Star Wars prequels unreasonably dangerous and defective); Holder v. Swift, No. 15-1975 (S.D. Tex. January 7, 2015) (questioning a musical artist’s ability to name a commercial recording after a  year which that performer does not herself remember); but see Reznor v. Cash, 518 F. Supp. 2d 752 (N.D. Cal. 2001) (finding that a remake of a popular musical work representative of a particular decade can be “so transformative that any dispute arising from it is nonjusticiable in the federal courts”). He also points to this court’s failure to halt the production of the reboots of “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Dallas” as evidence of the societal damage which may result when federal courts abstain from this duty. After considering the weight of the evidence presented, the likelihood of success on the merits, and the interests of the general public at large, I hereby grant the Plaintiff’s request for an injunction prohibiting production of the aforementioned programs.

(citations included).

Curiously relying on a series of 19th century cases arising from that era’s litigation of Impressionist works, the court also rejected, by analogy, the defendants’ damages argument that “no ennui can stem from programs originally released in standard definition.”

Representing the plaintiff was well known California entertainment attorney Thomas Wyatt, who had previously argued, successfully, that it was within a California federal court’s inherent power to prevent the rock band Smash Mouth from reuniting and embarking upon a nostalgia tour. Reached this morning via email, Mr. Wyatt indicated that he regretted that he could not amend his pleadings in time to add the production company rebooting the television sitcom “Coach” as defendants in the matter.