He filed suit in order to figure out who owns the rights

When William Friedkin filed suit against Paramount and Universal last month in Los Angeles Superior Court over the returns from his 1977 movie “Sorcerer,” it wasn’t yet another profit participation dispute but a more mystifying case of a title seemingly in ownership limbo.

The reason to take the action, he says, over the 35-year-old film — a reimagining of Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” described on the American Cinematheque website as Friedkin’s “most visually awesome film” — wasn’t profit but “simply to free the picture” so it can be screened for the public again or even get another homevideo release.

“No one will come forward and say who owns the rights,” Friedkin says.

Paramount had no comment, and Universal did not respond, but the two studios that partnered to make the picture apparently had been fine with screening it as recently as early January 2011, when the Cinematheque hosted a Friedkin retrospective at Santa Monica’s Aero Theater. At the time, Paramount made what Friedkin calls a “beautiful” print of the picture.

But that changed when another org, the Cinefamily, recently tried to get permission to screen the film; Paramount’s response “was we don’t even have that film,” recalled Cinefamily’s Hadrian Belove. He said Paramount’s legal department sent him a note saying that the studio owned no theatrical but some TV and foreign rights. The response from U was, essentially, check with Paramount. One suspicion is that the rights somehow got tied up in a now-defunct joint venture, Cinema Intl. Corp., set up to release the movie overseas.

“It is really a very special film that deserves rediscovery,” Belove said.

Belove contacted Friedkin, who later contacted his attorney, Eric George. He inquired, and Paramount responded that “they do not currently control the domestic distribution rights.”

“It just doesn’t make sense,” George says. “Imagine this: On the one hand, the studio says it does not control the domestic theatrical rights, and in an earlier letter they say you are not free to proceed with screening opportunities of this picture. On the one hand, we ourselves do not have the rights to give permission. On the other hand, it ain’t you, so don’t do anything.”

Friedkin said that although his suit seeks an accounting of revenue, “It is not the financial interest that draws me to this. I wish I did not have to bring it to court and waste the time of the court to figure out who owns this picture.” Any proceeds he gets from his suit, he said, will go to preservation.

“Sorcerer” is far from the only film stuck in the vaults, as one learns from talking to programmers for film societies and other festivals.

They say studios are ever-more reluctant to make the investment in handling the requests and care it takes to loan out 35 mm prints, and devoting legal resources to tracking down rights is even more of a disincentive.

Scott Foundas, associate program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, ran into trouble when he tried to screen 1957 classic musical “The Pajama Game.” Although Warner Bros. holds video rights, he found that they did not control other rights. Foundas cited a deal that Jack Warner had made with the original authors of the musical not to exploit the movie after a certain number of years.

“Then you have to go on a wild goose chase to see who has a copy of the film and who has the movie rights,” he said. Foundas tracked down one of the authors, who was more than happy to give permission, but then the problem became finding a print. He eventually tracked down a 16mm copy.

“A lot of people who used to work at the studios, who knew the ins and outs of archives and where the prints are, they are not around anymore,” Foundas adds.

The problem isn’t so much tracking down the owner but, when you do, finding a print to screen. Studios have generally been slow to covert their libraries to high-definition digital for those theaters that have spent the money to convert. Foundas also had to jump through hoops to find usable prints of more recent movies (from the 1970s and ’80s) like “The White Dawn,” “Fingers” and even “Blade Runner.”

“We have found that a film that screened somewhere as recently as two or three years ago, the studios will tell you, ‘We don’t have it anymore,’” Foundas said.

“Sorcerer” got a pretty poor quality homevideo release from Universal Home Video in 1998, but Friedkin fears that the doubts about ownership may also have the effect of opening the door to bootleggers seeking to reap some benefit from screenings or sale. His movie was not a not a success at the box office originally — it was released the same summer as “Star Wars” — but it is his most requested film, one that has gained in reputation over the years.

“There are many theories about this,” Friedkin said. “It is either that (the studios) don’t know or don’t care.”

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