Mexico's Televisa, France's FSF each claim exclusive rights to pic

“Los Olvidados,” the b&w classic about Mexican street urchins, is caught in a nasty custody battle in a U.S. court.

Pic, which won Luis Bunuel a directing award at Cannes in 1951, and returned there with a restored print last month, is being claimed by two companies, Mexico’s Televisa and France’s Films Sans Frontieres (FSF), each of which says it holds exclusive rights to the film.

Spanish-language media giant Televisa is so sure it’s the owner of “Olvidados,” along with two other Bunuel pics also in the FSF catalog (“La hija del engano” and “Subida al cielo”), that in late April it quietly filed suit against the French distrib in U.S. District Court in New York, demanding unspecified damages.

Televisa also named U.S. distrib Koch Lorber Films and exhib Film Forum in suit, because in March they distribbed and showed, respectively, a copy of “Olvidados” under license from FSF. In addition, French media corp Le Monde was named, because it marketed, also in March, a DVD of the pic licensed by FSF.

Case is set to have its first audience in coming weeks, but no trial date has been set.

“We’re absolutely sure that we’re going to win,” says Televisa film sales chief Marcela Green, who says net bought rights in 1996 from Mexican company Spanish Films, and that Televisa is the registered rights holder in both Mexico and the U.S. “We have all the contracts.”

FSF, for its part, claims that it acquired the rights to “Olvidados” from Mexican producer Ultramar in 1995 and to the other films from Bunuel’s heirs.”A year or two later, Spanish Films sold a package of films to Televisa which included ‘Olvidados,’ ” contends FSF head Galeshka Moravioff.

He points out that Ultramar in fact sold “Olvidados” twice, first to Spanish Films chief Pablo Barbachano Herrero in 1986.

“Televisa has rejected our settlement offer,” says Moravioff. “It’s a small business that can generate perhaps $100,000 in 10 years but for Televisa, it’s more a question of image.”

Televisa contends that the French distrib has provided no proof of ownershipand says it has worked out a settlement with Koch Lorber, which agreed to pay an unspecified sum and officially recognize Televisa as the rights-holder. In addition, Film Forum is close to reaching a settlement as well, Televisa said.

Indeed, Televisa says the contentious matter has a plus: it will now use Koch Lorber to distribute “Olvidados” in the U.S. and Canada; a DVD is in the works.

In addition, Televisa is set to bow five copies of pic here on June 24, the first commercial release for the film in Mexico since it made a triumphant return from Cannes in 1951.

“It’s for a whole new public that’s never seen it in cinemas,” Green says.

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