04 February 2014

A Testimonial to the Power of Lawsuits

Last fall Deadline.com reported a curious lawsuit involving the estate of Jack Haley, Jr., and Time Warner, current owner of rights to the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie.

Haley was a son of Tin Man actor Jack Haley and briefly husband of Judy Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli. In 1989 he produced “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Fifty Years of Magic,” a television documentary about the making of the feature film. Its screenwriting team included Aljean Harmetz, John Fricke, Bill Stillman, and Jay Scarfone, all of whom have written books about the movie. The host was Angela Lansbury, who had no connection but was a big star.

That documentary was broadcast alongside the movie and included on a three-disc set released in 1990 and on later home-video releases. Some footage was reused in another behind-the-scenes documentary. In 2012 Turner Classic Movies showed it as part of a Garland tribute.

What are the legal issues? One is what company owns the documentary. Both Jack Haley Jr. Productions and Turner Entertainment, now part of Time Warner, were involved in making it. The project “has made over $4 million, of which the Haley estate has received $2,083,451 as of August 2013,” according to Deadline, suggesting the two companies split the gross evenly. (This analysis of the lawsuit suggests that the estate is arguing that Time Warner owes it more money, but that’s not part of the Deadline report.)

The real issue appears to be whether the documentary continues to have value and, if so, whether that value depends on the link to the MGM movie. A couple of years ago, Warner Bros. wanted to buy out the Haley estate’s portion of the project for a small six-figure amount. When the estate wanted more, Warner Home Video left the documentary out of the latest anniversary re-release of the movie. The lawsuit claims that caused financial harm to the estate, which it no doubt did. But when you own only part of your asset, and it’s a spin-off of the other owner’s much more valuable property, you don’t have a lot of bargaining power.

This isn’t the first lawsuit over the Haley estate. When Jack Haley, Jr., died in 2001, some relatives and household servants claimed bookkeeper Kelly Brandt had finagled control of his assets. Other articles at the time identified Brandt as Haley’s “longtime assistant,” and she broke the news of his death. However that dispute was settled, Brandt remains the trustee for the estate and filed the current lawsuit.

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