Actors and writers of old, successful television series who seek profits from major studios when the studio exploits the series in other media — such as motion pictures – are not finding much success. Consider the recent lawsuit brought by Robert Wagner and the estate of his late wife, Natalie Wood. The Wagners’ lawsuit sought profits from movies based on their contractual rights in the television series, Charlie’s Angels. A unanimous three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal recently rejected the Wagners’ claim that their television series contract entitled them to profits from the movies. Here is some background.

The Wagners’ original agreement with Spelling-Goldberg Productions, the production company originally responsible for the Charlie’s Angels series, gave the Wagners a right to 50% of the net profits which the production company received “for the right to exhibit photoplays of the series and from the exploitation of all ancillary, music and subsidiary rights” to the series. Spelling-Goldberg ultimately sold these rights and obligations to Columbia Pictures, and more than a decade later, Columbia Pictures purchased the motion picture rights from the writers of the original pilot for the series. In 2000 and 2003, Columbia Pictures produced the two motion pictures based on the series, Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
The Wagners brought suit against Columbia Pictures and claimed that Columbia Pictures obtained the right to make the movies based on the Wagners’ deal with Spelling-Goldberg. The Wagners argued that the studio’s films constituted exploitation of “subsidiary rights” under that contract, and hence they were entitled to a 50% share of the net profits.

In its January 8, 2007 decision, the Court of Appeal affirmed the studio’s summary judgment victory at the trial court, and rejected the Wagners’ interpretation of their contract as too broad.

The Court also found that Columbia Pictures obtained the theatrical motion picture rights independent of the Wagners’ contract through their purchase of “separated rights” from the pilot writers. “Separated rights” are rights retained by the original writers of television programs under the producers’ collective bargaining agreement with the Writers Guild of America. Because Columbia Pictures made a separate deal with the pilot writers, the studio’s right to make the Charlie’s Angels films did not arise from the Wagners’ deal with Spelling-Goldberg.

This case reminds me of cases I handled for studios and networks a few years back. In one, I defended CBS and Fox in a federal court action filed by actor Robert Conrad who alleged a violation of his right of publicity and a breach of his contract when his likeness was used on video and DVDs for the 1960s television series, Wild, Wild West. I also defended CBS and Warner Bros. against claims by the writer of the series pilot that he retained “separated rights” which entitled him to the profits from the 1999 theatrical motion picture based on that series. In both cases, I won summary judgment on behalf of our clients.

My experience, and the recent victories by the studios and networks on these kinds of cases, suggests that the “talent” without a clear contractual right to participate in these kinds of profits from movies and other media will need to be more creative in order to prevail on their claims.

Click here to read the published opinion in Wagner v Columbia Pictures:
Wagner v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Case No. B184523.