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Will Paramount Pictures be able to make a new version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Or will it be another studio? On Feb. 2, Paramount hinted at how it will be defending the claim that it has lost ownership by sitting on rights for too long.
Paramount has a screenplay for a new movie, according to court papers. But Alan Schwartz, Trustee of the Truman Capote Literary Trust, has been shopping a television series, and has gotten seven-figure offers from multiple interested buyers. Early last year, both sides pursued settlement with the idea that Paramount would be involved in the TV production, but in May, negotiations were halted when Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos decided to opt for a feature instead.
Now they’re fussing over decades-old deal work and trying to figure out who has power to commission a new version. That’s what spurred a lawsuit filed last November.
Capote published his novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in 1958, before it became a classic film for Paramount starring Audrey Hepburn three years later.
In 1984, Capote died.
The timing of Capote’s death was significant because under the Copyright Act of 1909, an author’s death during the initial 28-year term meant the renewal term belonged to the author’s estate. In Stewart v. Abend (1990), the Supreme Court confirmed this fact, ruling that an assignee — like a movie studio granted film rights to an underlying story — holds “nothing but an unfulfilled and unenforceable expectancy if the author dies before the renewal period, unless the assignees secure a transfer of the renewal rights from the author’s statutory successor.” (This 30-year-old Supreme Court decision regarded rights to the story that became Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.)
Naturally, the high court’s decision was a boon to author estates, and in some instances, it provoked negotiations with Hollywood studios. That seems to have happened for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In 1991, Paramount and the Capote Estate entered into a new agreement.
Under this deal, Paramount got a $300,000 option to purchase rights within three years to make a new movie based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And if Paramount didn’t exercise its option, it would convey rights to the Capote Estate.
Paramount exercised its option, but it didn’t make a timely movie.
In his complaint, Schwartz flashes back to the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision. He asserts that Stewart resulted in a “superior bargaining position,” one that would mean he’d get his wish that “this very valuable property be exploited properly, and actually [be] produced and distributed.” Also nodding to the terms of the contract itself, he alleges that it adds up to Paramount having lost rights to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
But now, Paramount, in the midst of positioning this case as one that involves interpretation of copyright law and thus the domain of a federal court, has offered a theory about its post-Stewart deal with the Capote Trustee.
According to Paramount’s latest court papers, the 1909 Copyright Act and the Stewart decision didn’t touch foreign rights. The studio held onto those rights even given the reversion of domestic rights. In other words, although Schwartz may claim to have had “superior bargaining position” back in the early 1990s, Paramount had its own chip to bargain — those foreign rights. As Paramount’s court memorandum from attorney David Grossman puts it, “if Paramount retained foreign rights in the Story following the Abend reversion, the conditional obligation to quitclaim those rights to [Schwartz] upon failing to exercise the Option would make perfect sense.”
Paramount says it did indeed exercise its option. Later in this case, the studio will undoubtedly argue that the explicit language of the contract didn’t mean it had any time limit to make a movie. For now, the studio merely wants a federal court to exercise jurisdiction over this matter.
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