Producers tracking the rights stuff

As producers rush to remake old works, they are finding the biggest hurdle is securing rights. In current contracts, it’s clearly defined who owns remake, sequel and TV series rights to a property, but that wasn’t always the case.

Before writers and producers thought of their works as source material for later generations, rights were a secondary consideration, meaning they were up for grabs. Now it’s often up to attorneys, guilds and even the courts to figure out who owns what.

When developing the feature “The Beverly Hillbillies,” producer David Permut assumed the rights were with Filmways, the production company eventually acquired by Orion. But it turned out he also had to go to creator Paul Henning. As Henning was developing the TV series in the early 1960s, he managed to hold on to the rights to the characters. Says the exec: “I had a good attorney.” But when Permut began preparing a bigscreen “Green Acres,” a spinoff of “Hillbillies,” he didn’t deal with Henning, but had to go to the estate of creator Jay Sommers.

In the WGA contracts of 1953 to 1966, a production company had the right to make a pilot and a series, but “the writer had virtually everything else,” said the WGA’s Grace Reiner. For additional rights — which in those days meant things like lunch boxes and board games — a company had to go through the WGA to negotiate for the creator, she said. Many companies didn’t, leaving the rights in the hands of the writers.

In its magazine Written By, the WGA recently advised creators of pre-1966 TV series that they may still own motion picture rights. The contract was changed in 1966 to leave it up to the writer/creators to negotiate with production companies on their own for such secondary rights.

For example, Sherwood Schwartz owns the rights to characters on “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island,” meaning that companies had to get his permission for reunion movies and remakes. He does not however, own the copyright. That is the property of UA, CBS and Phil Silvers’ production company.

“As the writer, you put up your mind and your idea,” Schwartz recently told the guild magazine. “A corporation puts up the financing, and they end up owning the copyright. The corporation deserves something, but the writer should also have some relationship to copyright ownership.”

But even without copyright ownership, — which is the situation in which almost all TV series creators find themselves — remakes can be lucrative if those writers have a stake in secondary rights. Among those who recently reaped the benefits: Creators of the series “Combat!” recently set up for a feature at Paramount.

Sometimes the rights issues are murky, leaving it up to the WGA to search through its archives to resolve disputes. One recent inquiry: Sol Saks, the creator of “Bewitched,” and Columbia Pictures, over the motion picture rights to the 1960s series. “In those days, they never dreamed of working a feature out of a TV show,” Saks said.

Saks says he assumed that he would benefit when a producer approached him several years ago to do a feature version. But then he learned that Col was doing its own feature, without consulting him. According to Saks, Col is proving it has rights with a 1966 letter from the WGA. In it, the guild agreed to waive secondary rights. “I knew nothing about this,” Saks said.

Others cases are resolved. Even though “McHale’s Navy” was remade into a Tom Arnold feature (and one that tanked at the box office), money did not go to some of the series creators. They had sold the rights. “That’s devastating to lots of writers,” Reiner said. “These are characters that they are creating and they are not getting anything.”

On the feature side, many scribes are simply out of luck. In fact, veteran scribes like Fay Kanin and Julius Epstein recently lobbied Congress for changes in law to allow for residuals to writers for pre-1960s works, when such payments were not in the guild contracts. Just about the only hope for scribes from some of the classics are those who did manage to obtain rights on their own back when the originals were made.

Or there are those who have been lucky enough to obtain a guild credit on a remake, entitling them to residuals under modern-day contracts. When a pic is remade, the guild informs a writer or a writer’s estate and asks if they wish to seek a credit on a new version. Joseph Hayes, who wrote “Desperate Hours” from his novel and play in 1955, was credited in the 1990 remake along with Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. (Not everyone takes them up on the offer: Preston Sturges’ son passed on the 1984 remake “Unfaithfully Yours.”)

But one of the more successful cases has been the writers of “Bedtime Story,” credited on the 1988 remake “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” That brought residuals the way of the late Stanley Shapiro’s estate, and none other than Paul Henning.

Warner Bros. for years has wanted to remake “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” But those rights are in the hands of producer David L. Wolper and the estate of author Roald Dahl. Wolper wants to do a remake; the Dahl estate doesn’t.

The library of RKO Pictures has about 1,000 titles, many of them owned free and clear, says Ted Hartley, the chairman of the once-dormant studio. Now it stands to make millions from the remake rights to “Mighty Joe Young” in the licensing and producers fees and a share of the merchandising (see separate story). But they also have lesser-known titles like “The Richest Girl in the World” (1934), about a millionairess who wants to make sure that her next boyfriend loves her for herself, not for her money.

RKO plans to soon announce a Producers’ Circle, with top-named producers attached to the classic films from its library for development at the studios. “By and large,” Hartley said, “we control our library.”

Permut obtained rights for his remake “Dragnet” from MCA, the studio that had purchased Jack Webb’s Mark VII Prods. But Permut also had to track down music rights to the highly recognizable theme, separate from the remake rights. “It would have been hard to do it without ‘dum-de-dum-dum,’ ” Permut said.

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