Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Matter of Rights: A Talk with Lee Tsiantis

Everyone loves good news, and in 2007 classic film lovers got six doses of it: the RKO “Lost and Found” movies, unseen for decades due to an unusual rights situation, dusted off and unveiled for a delighted public by Turner Classic Movies. The RKO Six are Rafter Romance (1933), the Siren’s personal favorite of the group, a charming Depression comedy starring a young and delicious Ginger Rogers; Double Harness (1933), a wry comedy-drama of marriage and morals with William Powell and the underseen Ann Harding; Stingaree (1934), a rare musical outing for William Wellman and Irene Dunne’s second singing film role; Living on Love (1937), a remake of Rafter Romance whose virtues include Franklin Pangborn; One Man’s Journey (1933), a medical drama starring Lionel Barrymore and Joel McCrea; and its superior remake, A Man to Remember (1938), which boasted Garson Kanin’s first credit as director and a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo.

Not many cinephiles wallowing in all this RKO bounty realized that the movies had reappeared due in part to the efforts of Lee Tsiantis, a film lover and industry veteran toiling in the field of rights research for TCM and Warner Home Video. Well, toiling is not the word--Lee loves his work and cares passionately about preservation. Since rights issues stand in the way of our seeing a number of cherished films, Lee agreed to answer some questions via email about the RKO Six and the nuts and bolts of his job.

Please describe your role at Turner Broadcasting System.

I am a Corporate Legal Manager at Turner Broadcasting System's Entertainment Division in Atlanta, and have been with the company for 12 years. Prior to Turner, but still based in Atlanta, I handled regional publicity/promotions for a major studio and long ago worked in the late, lamented 16mm nontheatrical distribution market for Films Inc., where I was able to view hundreds of films from their library. My work tools at Turner are the supporting original studio legal documents of the approximately 3900 RKO, pre-1986 MGM and pre-1950 Warner Bros. features that Ted Turner bought in 1986-87. These films comprise the Turner Entertainment Co. (TEC) library, which is currently owned and administrated by Warner Bros. Entertainment. I do rights research on these films for various corporate clients, including Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and sister company Warner Home Video, which exploits the library on DVD and now Blu-ray. It certainly doesn't hurt to have a film background that helps me to connect the dots found in the documents.

Were the mechanics of resolving the rights entanglements of the RKO Six typical of your work?

The situation that brought the six RKO "Lost and Found" titles to light was atypical. The inquiries that come my way from company clients usually ask me to confirm TEC's rights in a particular film or asset, reaffirming a division's ability to exploit the property. Usually, and ideally, these rights are fairly broad, allowing for distribution and exhibition of a film worldwide, perpetually and in all media.

For an unresearched asset, I have to refer to the original studio agreements by which a source story or underlying literary property (in shorthand legalese, the ULP) was acquired. Those agreements, along with the copyright registration records, are key links in proving TEC's chain-of-title ownership of the "derivative work" (the film).

The path that led to the discovery of the RKO Six's rights situation began in 2006, when a TCM viewer asked why a 1933 John Cromwell film, Double Harness, never seemed to show up on the channel's schedule. As it was produced by RKO, it should have been part of the TEC library, but it wasn't on any of the master lists of TEC/RKO titles. TCM's Senior Programming Manager, Dennis Millay, asked me to research the film, and through evidence in the meticulously maintained and organized RKO documents, I was able to piece together a narrative that traced the ownership history not only of Double Harness, but also five other RKO films of the period.

It turned out all six were sold as a package out of the RKO library to former studio head Merian C. Cooper in 1947. Thus, the sale predated by 40 years Turner's 1987 acquisition of its distribution rights to the RKO titles; the six films were never part of the library Turner bought. With dogged persistence and the help of the Internet, Dennis and I were able to track down the son of the person who had been assigned Cooper's copyright ownership--who was totally unaware of that ownership--and six months later, TCM purchased all right, title and interest to the films from his family. Additionally, once prints were tracked down (we even found materials located in France and the Netherlands), TCM financed the cost of physically generating 35mm film preservation elements on all six titles (heroic work here from Dennis), guaranteeing they would have as close to a perpetual big-screen life as is physically possible with film.

After a single-week theatrical engagement at the Film Forum in NYC in Feburary, 2007, the films had their TCM broadcast premieres that April. Barring occasional showings at gatherings like Cinefest in Syracuse, NY, the films hadn’t been shown to a wide audience in almost 50 years. The whole saga, for those interested, can be found here.

None of the titles rewrite film history, but virtually all have distinctive attributes; Garson Kanin's A Man to Remember (1938) seems especially timely today, as it deals with medical ethics and health care responsibilities, but in the context of a deceptively small story about an altruistic country doctor. Film culture is enormously enriched by little gems such as the RKO Six, and TCM's role in resurrecting them attests to the channel's perseverance and commitment to keeping the culture alive.

I think we might have tapped the mother lode for this unorthodox category of rights-orphaned films; we haven't since come across a similar grouping to revive from obscurity.

What role can film preservation funding play in helping to resolve rights issues that keep films unseen? Must the profit motive always play a part?

I would only say that if a film's rights are unresolved, making the film impossible to distribute, there's little incentive to spend preservation money on it. For a studio, funds are better spent on owned, but unexploited assets in need of restoration--with no rights intangibles. Studio preservationists have enough on their plates trying to prioritize and save films whose rights are clear and unencumbered, but whose materials may be on their last legs.

Have you found any patterns in issues that tie up a movie's rights? Are the problems more prevalent with certain types of films?

Legal issues that prevent distribution of a film vary greatly and generally speaking, rarely have anything to do with the type of film in question. Instead they often have everything to do with the term of the original grant of rights in the underlying literary property, or ULP, by an author to the studio producing the film. On rare occasions, the story rights term will expire altogether, or expire with renewal options, and the studio, in order to continue to exploit the film (and despite the fact it may possess a valid copyright in the film itself), must renegotiate an extension with the ULP author, the author’s heirs or other successor-in-interest.

If the ULP owners hold out for what might be considered a disproportionate renewal fee that exceeds what the studio expects to economically return on the title, there can be an impasse, resulting in the frustrating situation where the studio owns the film--but can't distribute or otherwise exploit it. This is doubly frustrating if viable--and sometimes original camera negative--film materials exist in studio vaults.

As a result, certain films have been held up for decades in rights limbo--or at least until the film's ULP lapses into the U.S. public domain. In certain cases, the studio wants to negotiate with the owner of the story rights, but can't track the owner down! This is common in the case of authors who may reside outside the U.S., or authors whose families may not even be aware they are successors to a relative's literary rights. When trails go cold, major sleuthing is in order, but the sheer task of administration can impede the inclination to do the follow-through.

In 1990, a controversial Supreme Court decision involving copyright renewal rights to the Cornell Woolrich short story on which Rear Window was based had the immediate effect of tying up U.S. distribution to a number of notable films. The particulars are too complex to go into here, but for those who are interested (and have the stamina), the full text of the court’s decision is available online.

Do you have any encouraging words for those who view personal or collector’s copies of unobtainable films, and worry about their state of preservation?

I will say this: it's unfair to assume that a poor-quality bootleg copy of a long-unavailable film with rights issues might in any way be representative of the actual condition of film materials archived by a studio.

Thank you, Lee. We will continue to hope for more good news from the Turner vaults.


Raquel Stecher said...

What a superb post! Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to interview Lee Tsiantis.

I've been really interested in rights issues RE: classic films as of late so this post came as a pleasant surprise. I didn't know about the background of the RKO 6!

And I'm a little bit jealous about Lee's job. That sounds pretty exciting for a gal like me who loves poring over minute details, doing extensive research and hunting down people!

The Siren said...

Raquelle, I think half my readers are probably pea-green, as Scarlett would say, over Lee's job...I am myself! We have all heard so many times about some mysterious rights holding up our ability to see something; hence this post.

Cliff Aliperti said...

That was a fantastic interview! It cleared up so many of the why's behind something I often just dismiss as a matter of fact without further explanation. Pea-green indeed! Thanks so much for posting this.

Eminence Grise said...

Thanks so much. Sorry I hadn't found this blog sooner, but I'm glad I did!!
Love live old movies!

Tony Dayoub said...

Fascinating, fascinating interview.

KC said...

I never knew how much detective work was required to simply track down rights owners. The RKO story is amazing! I definitely have a new appreciation of that collection. Thanks for the great info.

Lou Lumenick said...

Great post, Siren. Back in '07, I interviewed John Cromwell's son, actor James Cromwell (his mom was Kay "Madam Satan'' Johnson) on "Double Harness,'' which James had never heard of despite being quite a student of his father's work.

Gloria said...

Very, very interesting post

I should be assuming that some day many films hidden and vaulted will eventually be re-released and available for view? I hope I'm still alive when the time comes.

In the meantime... What do we do if we want to see them?

Joe Thompson said...

Siren: What a neat post. We often don't think about the legal issues behind the unavailability of some movies. We all owe thanks to Lee, and to you for doing the interview.

Vanwall said...

I remember well when that Woolrich decision was handed down, as I was and am a dedicated Woolrich reader, and I was amazed by the fact any of his works ended up making case law. It may be controversial, but it at least nailed down an ambiguity that may save other films later, by defining the ground rules. Great interview, and Lee is doing great work for all of us, not just his company.

Yojimboen said...

Hear, hear M VW - all praises to Mr. Tsiantis.

About ten years ago I did an adaptation of a Woolrich story for one of cable networks (not HBO); it was in the casting stages when somebody in Legal found a "hiccup" in the Underlying Rights, and the whole thing fell apart. Hey ho...

But I do love me my William Irish!

Cladrite Radio said...

What an interesting and enlightening interview. Thanks for this!

Jennythenipper said...

I wonder what effect the court decision involving Google books will have on films in limbo. If the court gives google the right to publish books whose copyright holders can not be found, couldn't that open the floodgates to distribute films whose copyright holders can't be track down? If so that would be very good news for classic movie fans.

I touched on this in my post today:

Tinky said...

This was fascinating; kudo to Lee T. and to Turner for being willing to do all this. They make corporations look good! And kudos to you, Siren, for giving us yet another perspective on film preservation.

Anne Richardson said...

Thank you for this.

Eleni Phufas-Jousma said...

Wonderful interview!