A federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures owns the lucrative rights to 34 films starring the late Mexican film legend Cantinflas instead of the comedian's son.
U.S. District Judge William J. Rea's decision Tuesday caps nine years of rancorous legal wrangling over rights to the slapstick movies--some that are 60 years old--that still generate millions of dollars each year.
Rea also ruled that Cantinflas' son, Mario Moreno Ivanova, who lives in Mexico City, must turn over to Sony any film negatives the family has. The Culver City studio also can recoup $4.6 million in film royalty payments it placed in an escrow account while the case was being tried.
"Our position was vindicated," said David A. DeJute, Sony Pictures' assistant general counsel. "All we wanted from the beginning was to have the contract that his father signed honored."
In 1946, Cantinflas, whose real name was Mario Moreno Reyes, signed with Columbia Pictures, and the studio began distributing his mad-cap film capers throughout Mexico.
Crowds adored Cantinflas, who satirized the police, politicians and the social elite. He wore a tiny mustache, a grubby vest and a rope for a belt, which sometimes failed to keep up his pants.
But audiences were most enchanted by the way the ragamuffin character could talk his way out of any scrape with streams of nonsense.
Cantinflas' most popular film in the U.S. was the 1956 adventure "Around the World in 80 Days," also starring David Niven, which won the Oscar for best picture.
Cantinflas still is so popular that Sony spent untold millions for attorneys to clear the clouds over the film rights; it now is free to continue distributing his films.
"These films are really the exception to the rule that films get less valuable as they get older," DeJute said. "Cantinflas is revered in Mexico in an "I Love Lucy" or Charlie Chaplin way."
But since Cantinflas' death nine years ago, the rights to his films have been contested.
Courts in Mexico are still trying to unravel whether Cantinflas bequeathed his estate's film royalties to his son or to a nephew. The nephew claims his inheritance stems from an agreement signed by Cantinflas two months before he died.
The Los Angeles case did not delve into who was Cantinflas' heir, leaving that to the Mexican courts.
The lawsuit that Rea decided was originally filed by the nephew against Columbia Pictures and Cantinflas' son. Columbia eventually settled with the nephew, leaving the son and Columbia bickering over the worldwide film property rights.
The judge sided with Columbia's position that it acquired the rights to the most popular and profitable of the Cantinflas films during a convoluted series of transactions in the 1960s involving partnerships in the Grand Cayman Islands, Liechtenstein and a British holding company to the studio.
Moreno's attorney, Timothy C. Riley, had argued that Columbia failed to prove that Cantinflas signed away his film rights because a key document contained no signatures.
But the judge ruled that Cantinflas signed relevant agreements transferring film ownership, and witnesses during the three-week trial provided convincing testimony that the unsigned agreement had been approved by all parties.
Riley said the judge's ruling was "odd" and that he would appeal the decision.
Cantinflas' son contends that he still owns newer copyrights on some films after they had fallen into the public domain.
"We're not dealing with used cars," Riley said. "These are films, intellectual property from Mexico."
But Rea ruled that Columbia "was the owner of all rights, title and interest" to the most lucrative Cantinflas films, not his son.
So, Sony said, any copyright claims would be moot. "We're not in the business of wasting money establishing double rights when single rights will do just fine," DeJute said.