Suing A&E, History is not so wonderful

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

A&E Networks, the History Channel and Atlas Media Corp., a New York-based production company known for its documentaries, are defendants in a California civil suit brought by the estate of the late Donna Reed and five actors who were in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Christmas perennial starring Jimmy Stewart.
The suit, which asks for unspecified general and punitive damages and an injunction, charges that the defendants made and telecast a documentary that included the actors’ images and likenesses without their permission and did not pay them for use of their images. The plaintiffs, in addition to the late Ms. Reed, are actors Jimmy Hawkins, Bob Anderson, Todd Karns, Karolyn Grimes and Carol Coombs.
A spokeswoman for the Screen Actors Guild said that actors in films from the “It’s a Wonderful Life” period customarily signed over all their rights “in perpetuity” to the studio. “If the studio has the documents [i.e., the contracts with the actors’ signatures], it has the ability to use their images,” the spokeswoman said.
The actors’ attorney, Richard Ferko, maintained that the film’s rights holder, Republic Pictures, does not have such documents and that, in fact, the company pays his clients for any merchandising use of their images. “Republic pays my clients a royalty fee, a licensing fee to use their pictures,” he said. “If those rights were signed away, they wouldn’t be paying us a fee.”
The documentary in question, “Let Us Entertain You,” was part of the History Channel’s “American Classics” series and it focused on Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and “I Love Lucy” as well as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The lawsuit contends that “defendants made profits and/or gross revenues in an amount believed to be in excess of $500,000.”
“I think they are confusing a commercial merchandised product with a nonfiction documentary,” said Bruce David Klein, Atlas Media Corp’s president/executive producer, who said he had not yet the suit’s complaint. The documentary is “not a mug; it’s not a souvenir spoon; it’s not a T-shirt. … It’s no different from an article in a newspaper on the same subject.”
Atlas specializes in documentaries and has standard rights procedures in place, which were followed in this case, Mr. Klein added.
A&E declined comment, citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation. No trial date has been set.