Get Ready for a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Movie Sequel

Harper Lee and Gregory Peck
Photo by Bettman/Getty Images
Eriq Gardner
February 15, 2022

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 story of an Alabama attorney defending a Black man charged with rape, is undoubtedly one of the most famous American literary creations. The novel also became a 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck that earned a best picture Oscar. So why is Lee’s estate now relinquishing its lucrative movie rights to the novel?  

Remarkably, the late author’s estate says it has granted rights in To Kill a Mockingbird to the descendants of producer Alan Pakula, director Robert Mulligan and Peck, who now jointly control the copyright to the story of Atticus Finch, and can authorize a filmed sequel or any derivative (prequel, remake, N.F.T., metaverse version, et cetera). That’s according to bombshell court documents that were quietly filed last Wednesday in an Alabama federal court. Tonja Carter, the attorney, spokesperson and trustee of the Lee estate, filed papers to confirm the outcome of a secret arbitration that commenced upon one of the most notorious literary episodes of this century.

Back in 2015, during the last days of Lee’s 89-year life, HarperCollins announced that an old manuscript called Go Set a Watchman had been discovered and would be published. Lee actually wrote this “sequel,” detailing Atticus Finch’s older years first, before Mockingbird, but she had shelved it for more than half a century. Few knew about its existence, and when it surfaced, some suspected that Carter had taken advantage of Lee, who was by then a frail, hearing- and sight-impaired stroke victim. A New York Times columnist called the publication of Watchman “one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.”

No matter. The book flew off of shelves (1.1 million sold in the first week!), and Hollywood came calling, of course, with multi-million dollar offers for film rights. What no one knew at the time, of course, was that this frenzy would trigger a years-long legal battle between the Lee estate and those inheriting rights to the 1962 movie. Could a filmed remake or sequel even happen? If so, who had the power to make it? After years in arbitration, these questions have now been answered after Carter experienced a huge setback and came to a settlement. It appears a Mockingbird movie sequel is now likely, and it might not—indeed, probably won’t be—based on Watchman.

What exactly happened is complicated, and the story is told by a 131-page arbitration award that was issued three years ago and is being made public only now. According to this remarkable decision, Lee loved the ’62 film and remained friends with Peck for decades, but she didn’t like the idea of any new version. For instance, in Oct. 2008, she wrote to Peck’s widow to thank her for sending along a DVD of the old movie. “I shed tears—I guess for all the goodness that came to me from my much-loved friend and the perfection of his portrayal,” she wrote. “Of course, he was the only Atticus & I hope there is some way to prevent a re-make, of any kind, of [Mockingbird]. I know that we can ‘forbid’ forever, but things happen.”

That year, the prescient Lee made a couple of moves that would set the stage for the later battle. First, she sent a notice of copyright termination to the producers of the old movie. Under federal law, authors may cancel assignments and reclaim rights after waiting a specific period of time. The idea is that many authors, when they are up-and-coming, lack bargaining power in negotiations with publishers and studios. When Congress extended the copyright term by decades in the mid-1970s, lawmakers allowed authors to regain the fruits of their labor in the latter portion of the extended term. Thus, after waiting decades, authors may send termination notices and get another bite at the apple.

That’s exactly what Lee did in 2008. But her motivation may have been unusual. There’s evidence to suggest that she saw copyright termination not as a vehicle from which to profit, but rather as a mechanism to prevent a remake, just as she had told Peck’s widow. Nearly concurrently, Lee also made a new copyright assignment to Pakula and Mulligan—one that held back literary, TV, and stage rights. Why do this? In the arbitration, the producers’ side suggested that Lee trusted them to honor her wish not to make another Mockingbird movie. It probably was also helpful that at the turn of the century, they had agreed to bump up her share of profits.

Whatever the reason for Lee’s termination and second grant, those would become consequential decisions when, seven years later, the appearance of Watchman caused a sensation, and suddenly there was real interest in making a cinematic adaptation of the novel. According to the arbitration award, Universal Pictures made a seven-figure offer to Lee’s reps for movie rights. Hearing about this, the Pakula heirs objected and quickly sought to execute a $10,000 option for a sequel under the original 1961 deal for Mockingbird. Given the Pakula heirs’ insistence that they held the rights, Universal withdrew its offer to Lee.

Months before Lee died, in February 2016, she served a new notice of termination. That was the prelude to an arbitration wherein Pakula’s heirs attempted to depose Lee in her final days to find out whether the rumors of Carter’s manipulation were true–did the historic and reclusive author really wish to publish Watchman and cut them out of a new movie version? They investigated her will (which had stripped a prohibition against remaking a Mockingbird movie), and later claimed that the estate had breached Pakula’s deal for sequel rights by refusing to accept the $10,000 payment; by secretly entering a deal with Scott Rudin Productions for a Broadway production (Aaron Sorkin’s version) without giving them first opportunity; and by serving the latest termination notice. Carter insisted that her actions were consistent with Lee’s instructions and wishes. 

After recounting the history and getting into the nitty gritty of copyright law, Richard Silberberg, the arbitrator handling the dispute, determined that neither the 2008 nor the 2015 termination attempts were successful in canceling the producers’ Mockingbird movie rights. Although the purpose of the law is to give authors and their heirs the opportunity to reclaim rights, terminators must follow a strict protocol on when they send a notice, and with respect to Lee’s first attempt, he ruled that her notice came a tad too early and was thus invalid. And Silberberg also declared the 2015 termination attempt ineffective, too, since Lee had re-granted rights in 2008.

Why allow Lee’s 2008 re-grant? Silberberg discussed other termination situations involving Winnie the Pooh and Superman, among other cases famous in the copyright community, and he concluded that there very well could be a purpose to a new grant: Authors sometimes negotiate more favorable compensation in exchange for re-grants that extinguish their ability to reclaim rights.

Finally, although the arbitrator discussed the allegation that Carter went against Lee’s wishes in the later years of her life (including by sending a termination notice and initiating an arbitration), Silberberg pointed to how Carter had been granted Power of Attorney in 2012, which gave her broad powers, and that he wasn’t in position just yet to assess such a claim.

Overall, it was an enormous win for the heirs of Pakula and Mulligan. While the arbitrator didn’t decide which specific rights to Mockingbird and Watchman were granted to them (the arbitrator ordered more briefing on that), they clearly won the upper hand. What’s more, Carter was staring at the possibility of paying damages, given claims that she had put a cloud on their rights to control a sequel.

That paved the path to a settlement, blessed on Jan. 20 by the arbitrator. As part of the agreement, the Lee estate officially acknowledges that the 2008 deal granted all rights in Mockingbird, including the ability to “age” the characters backwards and forwards in any prequel or sequel. The Lee estate reserves TV, stage, and Mockingbird publishing rights, which of course affords some control and is lucrative. But the descendants of Pakula, Mulligan, and Peck otherwise control the property. And if they do a remake or sequel of the film, the Lee estate will receive a 15 percent profit participation.

As for a movie version of Watchman, which received mixed reviews upon publication, it’s a bit complicated. Technically, those rights belong to Pakula and Mulligan as well, but they have to wait 10 years, and then can proceed only with the consent of Lee’s estate. In other words, if there’s a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, expect it to be mostly original material and not based on Go Set a Watchman.

This settlement seems to be where Silberberg was headed anyway, but there’s one more surprise. The heirs of Pakula and Mulligan will dismiss their claim that Carter blocked their ability to get a new film off the ground. And as part of the deal, the Lee estate is making an undisclosed payment to them.