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Not Quite the Real Thing : Old Movie Clips Used in Commercials Leave a Bad Taste in Filmmakers’ Mouths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Elton John might have opted to hawk Diet Coke just for the taste of it, the three late film stars who appear with him in a new high-tech TV commercial--Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong--had no choice in the matter.

But their heirs and the copyright holder of their films did. And they bargained with Coca-Cola Co. to allow the use of their famous forebears’ film work in exchange for a rights fee.

Therein lies the focus of a controversy that began five years ago with the colorization of film classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and only promises to worsen as technology improves, according to critics. Some filmmakers are crying heresy at the thought of their artworks being cut up and used as commercial fodder.

“An Orwellian picture of what can happen is here, now,” said Keith LaQua, executive director of the Artists Rights Foundation. “Can you imagine someone buying a David Hockney and then cutting it up in pieces to auction off to the highest bidder?”

“Our position is that once the film is made, it’s made,” said director Joe Dante, speaking on behalf of the Directors Guild of America. “It’s not made by machines. It’s made by people. For economic gain, the people who own the copyright to these films are doing what they want to with them without regard to the original artist and that is not right.”

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In the Diet Coke commercial, John appears to be playing piano in a nightclub while Bogart, Cagney and Armstrong pop in for cameo appearances. Armstrong blows a trumpet riff from a Diet Coke jingle as he stands next to the British pop star’s piano, and Bogart walks into the nightclub as though he is actually Rick Blaine, walking into his own club in downtown Casablanca. Cagney not only places an order for drinks but also appears to smile at his modern lady companion as she rests her elbow on his shoulder.

“When you sell your soul to the Hollywood devil, you know that you sell it for residuals,” said Jesse Meyers, editor of the trade magazine Beverage Digest, which has tracked the escalation of the so-called “cola wars” for more than a decade. “You should know going in that you are selling your soul as well for commercials or movies that can be colorized by Ted Turner.”

The Atlanta television impresario who found himself in hot water with film preservationists over colorization is once again at center stage in this latest controversy. His Turner Entertainment Co. owns the MGM and Warner Bros. film libraries, from which the four films with the Diet Coke clips of Bogart, Cagney and Armstrong were taken.

“We must have looked at about 100 to 200 films,” said Tony DeGregorio, the Lintas: Worldwide Advertising executive who oversaw the creation of the commercial. “Ironically, we wound up with these four and all of them belonged to Ted Turner.”

A Turner spokeswoman said Saturday that Coke and Turner’s licensing and merchandising division head, Lois Sloan, “worked out a deal which accommodated both of them and, beyond that, I can’t really comment.”

Roger Mayer, president of the Turner Entertainment Co., said Turner is entitled to experiment “in the same way directors demand that right in connection with novels that they buy and plays that they buy.

“When they want to turn those around--change the title, change the characterizations, cut out large parts of it and change the vision of the author--they do not hesitate for a moment,” Mayer said in an interview broadcast over the Public Broadcasting Service.

In the ongoing battle between Coke and Pepsi for market share in the intensely competitive soft drink industry, the celebrity advertising stakes have climbed higher and higher in recent years. When Pepsi signs up a Madonna or a Ray Charles, Coke counters by contracting for the spokesperson services of a Paula Abdul or a Randy Travis. Pepsi hires a sports figure like Bo Jackson and Coke counters by getting Wayne Gretzky.

The stakes have now escalated to the point that one of the two cola rivals has resorted to what Beverage Digest’s Meyers characterizes as grave robbery.

“They can resuscitate the dead,” he said. “I think that this new ‘morphing’ process they’ve used in the Michael Jackson music video (“Black or White”) will mean even greater usage of old movies because it will get less and less expensive to use. It’s already gotten a lot cheaper than it was when colorization started five years ago. Coke has spent a lot of money on the Elton John commercial, but it isn’t sit-up-and-drop-dead money.”

Without being specific, DeGregorio said that the commercial was still quite expensive and time-consuming to make.

“There was a lot of lab work and the rights had to be secured from both Turner and the estates (of the dead stars),” he said. “But the big expense in this case was technical.”

The production crew hired more than 100 extras for the nightclub scene and John had to sit for up to 25 takes for each of the dozen different shots of his piano performance, according to DeGregorio.

After the old film footage of Cagney, Bogart and Armstrong was colorized, the match-up process basically became the same as that employed by Woody Allen in his 1983 feature, “Zelig,” in which Allen was matched with newsreel footage of historical figures from the 1920s to make it appear that his fictional character had interacted with the famous real people.

At one point, DeGregorio almost included a scene from “Now, Voyager” with Bette Davis, but decided against it because the late star was smoking--an activity with which Coke does not want to associate its products.

Another candidate was Groucho Marx. DeGregorio wanted to use footage of the late comedian walking in his famous hunched-over lope in front of the Copacabana band and another scene where he’s tossed out of the nightclub. But Groucho’s wardrobe “just wasn’t right,” according to DeGregorio, and, again, Groucho was smoking in the scenes.

The four movies that DeGregorio’s creative team decided upon were: Bogart in “All Through the Night” (1942), Armstrong in “High Society” (1954) and Cagney in “Public Enemy” (1931) and “The Roaring Twenties” (1939).

Viewers may marvel at the result, but the Artists Rights Foundation--a nonprofit group formed this year to protest what it sees as the defacement of artists’ work, and which is housed at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles--is not pleased.

“Four or five years ago, several filmmakers predicted this would happen,” said executive director LaQua. “What this commercial brings into focus is that film art, which has strong ideological and cultural imagery, can be altered for any purpose, and the artists themselves who have sold the copyright have no right to object and no power to seek redress.”

Indeed, not even a classic such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” seems immune from commercial use. The Massachusetts Lottery is using scenes from the movie--which is in the public domain--to tout its numbers game, to howls of protests from purists.

Besides lifting a late actor’s image from a late director’s film, film library owners like Turner can sell bits and pieces of a film, speed up images, compress time, edit out whole sections and computer enhance everything.

“Our ability to manipulate images in the coming years is going to be unparalleled, but it should not be done at the expense of what has been done in the past,” said director Dante.

“Along with jazz, film art is the American art form. If you own it, you own it in trust and you have an obligation to preserve it for future generations. When the 20th Century is over, this is all we’re going to have.”


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