AOL TW gave away cable rights, suit alleges

Director William Friedkin and author William Blatty have sued Warner Bros., Turner Network Television and Turner Broadcasting System, claiming they have been cheated out of profits on the 2000 re-release of “The Exorcist.”

Alleging self-dealing and seeking unspecified damages, Friedkin, the director of the film, and Blatty, who wrote the best-selling book and the screenplay on which the film is based, charge that the AOL Time Warner empire gave the cable rights to the new “Exorcist” to TNT and TBS for free. The re-release earned $40 million domestically and $110 million worldwide, making it the second-most successful re-release after the “Star Wars” series. TNT obtained a license to air the original picture in 1997 when it became a sister company to Time-Warner.

Complaint outline

According to the complaint, AOL Time Warner came up with the “bogus excuse” of not obtaining a fee from Turner for the re-release by claiming that if it did not give Turner the rights to the re-release, Turner would sabotage it by showing the old version. Plaintiffs allege that any attempted sabotage by Turner could have been put to rest with a single phone call from AOL Time Warner.

The complaint also alleges that CBS was sold network broadcast rights at the below-market price of $1.5 million.

Bert Fields, who represents the pair, said “Blatty and Friedkin vastly enriched Warner Bros. with their extraordinary talent. What happened to them illustrates the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished.”

Countered a Warner Bros. spokesperson said, “It is our policy not to comment on matters of litigation, especially those that are ludicrous.”

According to the complaint, which was filed Tuesday in L.A. Superior Court, Friedkin and Blatty spent years persuading Warner to re-release the film. Blatty outlined an arrangement of new scenes and Friedkin spent several months re-editing the film, re-doing the sound and adding 11 minutes to the footage. They also helped promote the film, and instead of guaranteed compensation, they expected their reward to be increased profits from the film.

Deals still in place

Under their original deals, still in place, Blatty got 39% of net profits on the film and Friedkin got 10% of net profits. In 1999, the pair settled an audit claim with Warners involving homevideo sales. The current complaint alleges wrongful conduct by Warners relating both to the original film and the new version. On the original film, Blatty and Friedkin allege among other things that Warners allocated revenues to other pictures that should have been allocated to “Exorcist” to avoid paying profit participation.

On the re-release, Blatty and Friedkin claim Warners licensed the film to CBS at a below market price, $1.5 million, with the “excuse” that it could not be easily aired because of its adult content. The complaint also suggests some arrangement between CBS and TNT and TBS that would benefit AOL Time Warner despite the low license price.

Knowledgeable sources suggest that although 15% of domestic gross is the typical formula for determining the network license fee, it may not be applicable to the re-release of a film that would have to be heavily edited for television. Sources also speculated that the low fee could represent a split window, under which CBS is sharing network rights with a cable outlet.

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