I have a horror story to share. It’s about The Thing, and the shapeshifting monster that promises to devour much of Hollywood. Studios are now bracing for mass casualties. But there’s more to this bloody story.
This tale begins in the 1970s, when federal lawmakers added decades to the lifespan of copyrights. Sounds straightforward, but there was a twist. It was also decided that authors of copyrighted works (and their heirs) should enjoy the newly lengthened term rather than publishers and studios. Why? Congress knew that many creatives possess little bargaining power early in their careers and they often assign rights for very little. The idea was to give them a second bite at the apple. These creators would have to wait a while (35 years for works created after 1978; 56 years for older works), but once the ticking clock hits the mark, these individuals can terminate copyright grants and reclaim ownership.
Guess what? That clock is now running out for a plethora of properties, as my colleague Matt Belloni wrote this past week. Amazon shouldn’t feel too bad about spending $8.5 billion for a leaky I.P. studio like MGM, which is primed in the next few months to lose both Robocop and Hannibal Lecter, and then next year, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hoosiers, and Logan’s Run. Indeed, a trip to the Copyright Office reveals that expiring rights are a growing phenomenon across the industry. According to records, Sony is facing termination on Bad Boys while Paramount is facing the situation on Grease and Belloni’s all-time favorite movie, Mommie Dearest. Warner Bros. has received termination notices for Nightmare on Elm Street, Beetlejuice, and Ace Ventura. Disney has Mrs. Doubtfire, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and partial ownership of most of the Marvel superheroes (more on that in a second). And outside the major studios, everything from the musical variety show Soul Train to the infamous ‘70s porn classic Deep Throat are in play.