Trial Alert! Paramount's Hold on 'La Dolce Vita' to Be Challenged

44 BIZ La Dolce Vita H
Everett Collection

Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg star in the comedy-drama, which at one point fell into the public domain.

Film buffs, mark your calendars.

On Feb. 12, Paramount Pictures and International Media Films will square off in a New York courtroom in a fight over who holds copyright on Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita. The trial will test both company's competing chains of title and examine dealmaking during the golden age of Italian cinema.

In preparation for the fight, both sides are giving their version of the facts.

According to IMF, Paramount only thinks it holds proper title to one of the film world's true classics. In papers filed in court on Tuesday, the company gives several reasons to support the contention that an agreement that Paramount is relying upon isn't authentic.

Paramount brought the lawsuit in November 2011, shortly after the film celebrated its 50th anniversary and both companies licensed theatrical re-releases and special edition DVDs and Blu-Rays. IMF is charged with infringing on Paramount's copyright.

At the time of the lawsuit, IMF was coming off a court loss. IMF had itself tried to assert copyright infringement against another company that had made a porn version of the Fellini film that popularized the orgy. IMF failed to win its lawsuit because the judge ruled it hadn't established its rights.

Thereafter, in the subsequent Paramount-IMF litigation, the new judge was told that IMF had already been deemed a loser. But the judge accepted IMF's position that its burden as a plaintiff to prove rights was different than its burden now. The judge ruled, "The Court finds that it would not serve the interests of equity and fairness to preclude IMF from raising the defense that it owns the Copyright."

Both companies have theories on why they hold proper title. Each presents a complicated chain of custody. Both agree that producer Riana Film S.P.A. originally held title. Both agree that rights were then transferred to Cinemat S.A.

But that's where the stories diverge.

IMF says that over the next three decades, Cinemat then sold the film to a company called Hor A.G., which then passed it along to Oriental Films, which transferred rights to Cinestampa, which then paved the way to IMF.

Paramount's position is that Cinemat sold it to a company called Astor, which ran into financial trouble and eventually sold rights to a company controlled by Paramount.

IMF has already had the authenticity of its own documents challenged. Now it's Paramount's turn with IMF ridiculing the "improbability" of the 1962 agreement between Cinemat and Astor.

That agreement is said to be dated on Jan. 9, 1962, but IMF points out that at the time, Cinemat hadn't acquired rights on La Dolce Vita until two months later. IMF says the fact that a company would sell rights to a film it didn't yet own is "manifestly questionable." The purchaser in this agreement is said to have committed to $1.5 million for rights it didn't yet own and that the parties didn't spell out in contract what would happen if Cinemat wasn't successful in gaining rights from the producer. Further, IMF says the agreement wasn't notarized, has elements that are allegedly "superimposed," has elements that aren't legible, and allegedly involved a European banker who was involved in the Hor transaction.

Here's IMF's full contentions of fact and law.

In Paramount's papers, the studio believes the agreement to be perfectly valid, and that IMF is the crazy one to assert that Cinemat transferred rights to Hor 18 years after it put in writing that it no longer had further rights to the picture. But Paramount also makes the case that "a party's burden to establish a document's authenticity is minimal" and that the contracts in question "qualify as 'ancient documents,' in that they are in a condition that creates no suspicion about their authenticity."

Here's Paramount's full contention of facts and law.

Although neither party will come right out and explicitly say it, somewhere in the history of Italian cinema, there is a good possibility that a fraud was perpetrated and perpetuated. The exact nature of what happened 30 and 50 years ago hasn't been truly solved. The trial next month might begin to give some answers -- or at very least, figure out what to do in a situation where the key witnesses are dead and all that remains are documents whose authenticity is in dispute.

UPDATE: A trial won't happen until September. The parties will submit summary judgment motions in April.

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