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Wheel of Time is the sad lesson of what can happen when you sell the rights to your books

The Eye of the World is the first book in the Wheel of Time series.
The Eye of the World is the first book in the Wheel of Time series.
Darrell K. Sweet/Tor
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

At 1:30 in the morning on Monday, February 9, a highly unusual program aired for a half hour on out-of-the-way cable channel FXX. Billed as Winter Dragon in some listings and The Wheel of Time in others, it was apparently a TV pilot for an adaptation of Robert Jordan's ridiculously popular Wheel of Time fantasy series.

You can watch it right now:

The Wheel of Time is of great interest to TV fantasy fans because it has the potential to be the next Game of Thrones. Its sprawling world and gigantic cast of characters make it the natural choice for any network that might want to get in on the epic fantasy action. Plus, the pilot starred well-known actor Billy Zane. Outside of some terrible computer special effects, the production values were solid. And it was based on a beloved book series.

So why on Earth was it airing at 1:30 am on a Monday on FXX?

The answer to that has very little to do with quality control and everything to do with how TV networks and movie studios handle adaptations of popular material. The contracts governing those adaptations create situations like this all the time.

The Wheel of Time has the potential to become the next Game of Thrones

Begun in 1990 and concluded in 2013, The Wheel of Time is a 14-book cycle (complete with a 334-page prequel published in 2004) that puts the epic in epic fantasy. A plot summary would be impossible. Suffice to say, there's good; scruffier, antiheroic good; and evil.

Book sales figures are hard to pin down, but as of 2007, the series had sold 44 million copies, making it one of the best-selling series since the heights of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Author Robert Jordan's skills with world-building resulted in a series that boasts an incredibly devoted fan community that would love a TV series or film adaptation. (Jordan died in 2007, and the final three books were completed by Brandon Sanderson from his notes.)

Thanks to the huge success of HBO's Game of Thrones, TV and film are hungry for grittier adaptations of fantasy novels, and Wheel of Time more than fits that description. Thus, an adaptation seems like an inevitability.

Or, rather, it would if a company that seemingly redefines incompetence didn't own the rights.

The company that owns the rights has been unable to get an adaptation made

A short-lived attempt to get a series version of Wheel of Time off the ground was first made by NBC in 2000. That attempt failed, and the rights were sold by Jordan's company, Bandersnatch Group, to Red Eagle Entertainment.

Red Eagle first exercised its adaptation rights with a comic book adaptation in 2005. In 2008, it actually got so far as to sign a deal with Universal to produce film versions of the books. (Remember Universal. Though it appears to have nothing to do with the FXX pilot, it will be important later.)

Significantly, if you go to Red Eagle's website, which hasn't been updated since 2009, it appears to be a company that exists solely to attempt adaptations of Jordan's books. It's done nothing else of note.

Wheel of Time films didn't materialize, to Jordan's anger and consternation. Yet Red Eagle retained the rights to the series through Wednesday, February 11, 2015, according to Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougal Rigney. For more on the lengthy adaptation headaches, check out this excellent timeline of Red Eagle's mismanagement of the property from Adam Whitehead.

Thus, the pilot appears to be a bit of a rush job, created to beat the February 11 deadline. It was filmed mere weeks ago, according to its director, then rushed to air. It has every appearance of being a last-ditch attempt by Red Eagle to retain the rights to Jordan's series.

Companies often make things just to keep adaptation rights

Most contracts between creators and those who buy adaptation rights to said creations have built-in expiration dates when the rights revert to the creator. These expiration dates vary, based on how much rights-purchasers wish to pay.

But these expiration dates also usually include a crucial caveat. If the person who buys the adaptation rights keeps making adaptations of the original property, the rights will usually stay with them.

Sony, for instance, owns the movie rights to Marvel's Spider-Man and all associated characters, so long as it keeps making Spider-Man movies. That's why the studio keeps rebooting the character, lest the rights revert to Marvel. Even with the recent deal to bring Spider-Man to Marvel movies, Sony is essentially renting out the character to Marvel Studios, as my colleague Alex Abad-Santos pointed out.

The practice of making something just to keep the adaptation rights is a time-honored one in Hollywood. Fox's Fantastic Four movie coming out in August 2015 is an example of a big-budget film made within a timeframe that suggests that the studio mostly wanted to retain its rights. Or look back at the 1990s to see a film produced by Roger Corman (among others) do exactly the same thing with exactly the same characters, thanks to the ultra-low-budget Fantastic Four film.

FXX didn't have anything to do with the show

Well, mostly. io9's Charlie Jane Anders called up the network and found that this pilot aired in such a late-night timeslot for exactly the reason you might suspect: somebody paid to air it there.

Will Red Eagle retain the rights to Wheel of Time?

It's not entirely clear. Since we don't have access to the contract between Red Eagle and Jordan's company, Bandersnatch Group (to which the rights would revert if Red Eagle lost them), we can't know for sure. But in that io9 report, Red Eagle sure seems to think it's lived up to its contract in order for its hold on the rights to be renewed. (It's not clear for how long that renewal would last, either.)

But you can bet there are lots of networks and studios slavering at the opportunity to turn Wheel of Time into a series, particularly since everybody in TV is looking for their own Game of Thrones now (to the degree that even Netflix is rumored to be adapting the video game The Legend of Zelda into a series). And Red Eagle has proved singularly unable to get this project moving forward. If a lawsuit can be filed, it almost certainly will be.

Rigney, Jordan's widow, said in a statement:

It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this.

Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch.

I see no mention of Universal in the "pilot". Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way.

Remember Universal? That reference to the studio may prove key. If, indeed, Bandersnatch's adaptation rights contract was with Universal and not Red Eagle, then whatever claim Red Eagle has to the property will fall apart. If that contract was with Red Eagle directly, however, or if Universal turns out to have funded this secret pilot, things will get more complicated.

Without seeing the contract, we can't know for certain. It seems possible, however, that Riley was under the impression that only Universal could attempt a TV or film version of Wheel of Time while Red Eagle maintained the rights as a completely separate entity. Thus, it would only have to produce the pilot and air it (though airing it in paid programming really stretched the definition of "airing") to maintain its rights.

But that's all speculation. Ultimately, this seems likely to shake out in the courtroom. The irony is that any lawsuit will likely stretch on long enough that Hollywood will move on to the next thing, no longer as interested in epic fantasies as it is right now. In that sense, the people who lose in this situation are all those fans, who seem less likely to see an adaptation of this book than ever before.

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