Movies & TV / Columns

The Fight to Remake Breakfast at Tiffany’s

February 6, 2021 | Posted by Steve Gustafson
Breakfast at Tiffany's

Here we are, talking about remaking yet another classic as Paramount has filed its first arguments in a rights battle with a Truman Capote heir that’s intending to sell the TV rights. 

According to court papers, Paramount has a screenplay for a new movie but Alan Schwartz, Trustee of the Truman Capote Literary Trust, has been shopping a television series, and has received a 7-figure offer from a number of interested parties. 

Last year, both sides pursued settlement with the idea that Paramount would be involved in the TV production, but then in May, negotiations were halted when Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos decided to pursue a feature film instead.

That brings us back to the two arguing over just who has the real power (the rights!) when it comes to Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Some history for you. Mr. Capote published Breakfast at Tiffany’s back in 1958 and a few years later Paramount made the movie with Audrey Hepburn and it became a classic.

Now here’s where it gets blurred. Capote died in 1984, which is important because under the Copyright Act of 1909, an author’s death during the initial 28-year term means the renewal term belongs to the author’s estate.

In 1990, the Supreme Court made this clear with Stewart v. Abend, ruling that an assignee (an movie studio, for example, that was granted rights) holds “nothing but an unfulfilled and unenforceable expectancy if the author dies before the renewal period, unless the assignees secure a transfer of the renewal rights from the author’s statutory successor.”

This was a huge victory for author estates and the power over Hollywood studios. This was used when Paramount and the Capiote Estate came to a new agreement in 1991. In short, Paramount got a $300,000 option to purchase rights within three years to make a new movie based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s and if they didn’t make a movie, the rights flipped back to the estate. 

Spoiler alert…Paramount didn’t make the movie. 
Now the head of the estate, Schwartz says he’ll get his wish that “this very valuable property be exploited properly, and actually [be] produced and distributed.” He also says that Paramount has lost the rights to Breakfast at Tiffany’s per that last agreement.

Wait! Here come the Paramount lawyers! As with most cases of this nature, the interpretation of copyright law is in question and muddy the waters.  

According to Paramount’s latest court papers, the 1909 Copyright Act and the Stewart decision didn’t touch foreign rights. GASP! They contend that while Schwartz may claim to have had “superior bargaining position” in the 1990s, Paramount still held foreign rights. As Paramount’s court memorandum from attorney David Grossman states, “if Paramount retained foreign rights in the Story following the Abend reversion, the conditional obligation to quitclaim those rights to [Schwartz] upon failing to exercise the Option would make perfect sense.”

What does this all mean? Not much at this very moment as this looks to be in court for quite a while unless the two come together to work something out but here we are again debating the act of remaking a classic. 
To be clear, I have NO ISSUE remaking a movie that had a clever plot but didn’t execute the filming/casting/marketing to its full potential. The backlog of movies that could be remade is massive…but classics…I just don’t see the point.

Do we really need a new Breakfast at Tiffany’s or can we just put on the original? On a similar note, what would a television series look like? I just don’t see that at all. 

What about you?