Julian Assange: The Movie

Time Warner, Universal Vying to Tell Story of WikiLeaks Founder

Movie studios are jostling to be the first to bring the story of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, to the big screen. But when Hollywood attempts to harness a swift-moving news story—particularly one lacking a finale—the task can be more complicated than simply casting a look-alike.

European Pressphoto Agency

Julian Assange in February, prior to a court hearing in London.

As the famously mercurial Mr. Assange battles his way through protracted legal challenges, Hollywood studio executives have become entranced by the sweep, stakes and unpredictability of his story.

The hacker and political activist orchestrated the release of thousands of confidential U.S. State Department cables starting in 2010. His actions sparked both the arrest of a U.S. Army soldier suspected of leaking them and global public debate about press freedom in the Internet age.

Mr. Assange is now seeking asylum at Ecuador's embassy in the U.K. in order to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning regarding alleged sexual assault.

He has denied the allegations. A spokesman for Mr. Assange didn't respond to requests for comment.

Among the studios with WikiLeaks movies in development are Time Warner Inc.'s HBO Films, DreamWorks Studios, Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures and Annapurna Pictures, the company run by Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison.

As the studios have learned, nailing Mr. Assange's narrative is no easy feat. The events so far are complicated and subject to debate. And much of the narrative remains unwritten.

No one knows, for instance, what will result from the charges Mr. Assange may face in Sweden, or whether he will be charged in the U.S. for any infractions related to the release of the documents.

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A criminal case against Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier suspected of giving information to WikiLeaks, remains similarly unresolved.

"It's been tricky because there's so much of the story that's yet to be told," said Holly Bario, DreamWorks's president of production, adding that she had never encountered this particular quandary while developing a film.

As a result only one of the Assange projects is close to release. Several more are percolating, while others have fallen by the wayside.

Mr. Assange himself may have contributed to the demise of at least one potential project.

Creative Artists Agency had been retained to sell the film and TV rights to Mr. Assange's memoir, which was set to be published in the U.S. by Random House's Alfred A. Knopf imprint.

But Knopf canceled its contract with Mr. Assange in September, saying that he failed to complete work on the manuscript. CAA is no longer representing the rights to that project, a spokeswoman said.

Some studios have pushed ahead, even without securing the rights to Mr. Assange's life story.

An individual has the right to control the commercial use of his or her name or likeness in product advertising or merchandising, according to Eugene Volokh, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles law school who studies First Amendment issues.

Those rights don't extend to control of all public use of a subject's stories, name or likeness. That means a movie studio can make a biographical picture without acquiring the rights to a person's life story.

For example, "The Social Network," about the creation of Facebook Inc., was made without rights to CEO Mark Zuckerberg's life story. Instead, the film was based on a book about the company's origins and a pair of lawsuits concerning the same topic.

Similarly, HBO Films is developing its WikiLeaks movie based on a story about Mr. Assange that appeared in the "New Yorker."

Charles Ferguson is set to direct, according to an agent for the director, who previously made the financial-meltdown drama "Inside Job."

The film hasn't begun shooting. A spokeswoman for HBO confirmed that a WikiLeaks film is in development but declined to say more.

Other projects are facing delays as they wait for Mr. Assange's real-life story to unfold.

DreamWorks, for example, optioned the rights to "Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website." The book was written by former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who left the organization after accusing it of having abandoned efforts at transparency.

The studio hired a writer—Josh Singer, whose credits include "The West Wing"—to produce a script based on the book, which is highly critical of Mr. Assange.

But DreamWorks is now holding off until it can tell the final chapter.

"We're still waiting to see what happens with Julian," Ms. Bario said. "And if you're going to invest in this story, you've got to have a satisfying ending."

Not all studios are subscribing to that logic. Universal is close to finished with a documentary from Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."

The project, co-producer Marc Shmuger said, aims to be "the first really comprehensive telling of the story."

Mr. Shmuger approached Mr. Gibney with the concept more than a year ago, before Mr. Assange was wanted for questioning in Sweden, and the two of them pitched the idea to Universal, where Mr. Shmuger is a former chairman.

Mr. Shmuger said he recognizes the challenges of completing a documentary on a subject that is still unfolding. But the goal, he said, is "hopefully getting its arms around the whole story [in a way] that's more lasting than the news cycle."

"You have to be mindful, obviously, of the fact that the story continues, but it's not just about the retelling of the news," he said. "It's about, 'Who are these people and what this does this say about the world today?'"

Write to Erica Orden at erica.orden@wsj.com

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