Spielberg Draws on Rear Window, Gets Slapped with a Lawsuit

When Disturbia, the pre-Transformers Shia LaBeouf-vehicle hit theaters last year, most critics made reference to its similarities to Hitchcock's universally hailed Rear Window. Both featured a murderer next door, an intently curious neighbor who sees something not intended for his eyes, and a neighborhood that's slow to catch on to his suspicions. Perhaps most importantly, both feature main characters who are somehow immobilized (one by an injury, the other by an ankle bracelet). These heroes' confined positions both fuel their fascination with the world beyond, and make them vulnerable targets for the killer—it's a clever plot device that heightens the stakes in both films. Calling Disturbia a teen-centric adaptation of Rear Window is by no means a stretch.

For some inexplicable reason, however, executive producer Steven Spielberg didn't deem it necessary to obtain rights to reuse the story, and this week got slapped with a lawsuit from Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust. The estate owns the rights to Cornell Woolrich's short story, on which Hitchcock based his film. He and Jimmy Stewart obtained rights to the story in 1953.

According to the lawsuit, Spielberg had conceived Disturbia in hopes of updating the story for a young audience, Dow Jones reported. Dreamworks had also conducted several hundred test screenings of Rear Window to evaluate teenagers' and twenty-somethings' familiarity with Hitchcock's work. The two films were also shot on the same soundstage.

Read the rest of Chad Bray's Dow Jones story here.

As of now it's unclear why the Abend Trust waited for so long to demand its share of the wealth. Some bloggers have mocked the plaintiffs' slow response time, while others have derived that the estate decided to act only after Disturbia became a worldwide hit.

"The news that Steven Spielberg is being sued…doesn't come as a major surprise in the legalistic world of Hollywood. Even more so when the movie itself is one that became rather profitable," wrote Maxim Jakubowski in his blog on the UK's Guardian web site.

The trust may also have chosen to sue just as Spielberg's and LaBoeuf's latest collaboration, Eagle Eye, is about to hit theaters, wrote Geoff Boucher of the L.A Times.

Even before his 2003 death, estate representative Sheldon Abend was quick to fight for his rights via litigation: In 1974, he sued Hitchcock and Stewart for copyright infringement after the director failed to ask for his permission before scheduling network TV showings of the film.

The most recent mess may just inspire Hollywood producers to focus more on finding original story lines. Or not.

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