The Studios’ Next Ticking Timebomb

mike hopkins
Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty
Matthew Belloni
April 14, 2022

If I’m Mike Hopkins, senior V.P. of Prime Video and Amazon Studios, and I’m starting to look under the hood at MGM, the studio for which I just spent $8.5 billion, I might be asking a few questions. Like what, exactly, has Mark Burnett, the much-hyped TV impresario, actually created while being paid millions of dollars? Oh, and if Licorice Pizza cost $40 million to make, and MGM then spent tens of millions on a platform release and an awards campaign, and it grossed just $32 million worldwide… why is it now being dubbed internally as a hit? And, one more: I bought this great film and TV library, but what rights, exactly, did I actually buy?

Hopkins knew that many of the top MGM titles are tied up for years in distribution deals. But he may not have known that several other movies are essentially ticking time bombs, thanks to a legal loophole that is suddenly a big deal to legacy film and TV studios. It’s called “termination rights,” a quirk of copyright law that allows certain creators to claw back their work, and if you’re a studio or music label lawyer, it’s a giant headache.

Music companies are very familiar with termination rights because artists have been aggressive in reclaiming their masters. Hall & Oates, the favorite band of my Puck colleague Eriq Gardner, has filed 433 termination notices, according to a recent study. George Clinton, the funk legend, has filed 1,413 separate terminations. Now this issue is gaining steam at film and TV companies. Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller recently won an appeal upholding his right to wrest back his rights. And at MGM alone, valuable properties like Robocop, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Hoosiers, Logan’s Run and many more either have come up or are due for possible termination, according to sources. (MGM declined to comment.)