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WRITTEN STATEMENT FOR SUBMISSION TO THE SUBCOMMITTEE
COMMITTEE, MAY 12, 1987
Roger L. Mayer
My name is Roger Mayer and I am President and Chief Operating Officer of the Turner Entertainment Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting. I have been an executive in the motion picture and television industries for approximately 35 years at only 2 other companies: Columbia Pictures and MGM. I was at MGM for 25 years, most notably as Senior Vice President of Administration and as President of the MGM Laboratory. My main administrative duties included the administrative control of the MGM Studio and the MGM Library.
Our great film libraries contain many thousands of old black and white movies which, despite their intrinsic entertainment value, do not command an audience today because today's audiences are conditioned to looking at movies in color. They simply cannot be persuaded, cajoled, or bullied into watching them in black and white.
In the controversy over the coloring of old black and white movies, the issues appear to be: Who has the right to decide whether these old movies should be colored? What is achieved by coloring? What is lost?
It seems to be acknowledged that the owners or licensees of the copyrights have the legal right to decide this matter. The Directors Guild, the leader of the anti-coloring forces, has postulated that a "moral" right exists too, and that this right belongs to the director. However, the broadest possible ownership rights were obtained from directors and other personnel, by collective and individual bargaining under employment agreements, for large salaries and sometimes profit percentages. The owners thereby could control the methods and manner of distribution, advertising and use of the various media (such as TV, airlines, videocassettes, and now color converted versions). The incentive to invest in motion pictures would be chilled if directors or others could decide how, where or whether such pictures could be marketed. We are probably all familiar with the directors' position; so in the interest of brevity, I will state it in simplistic terms. The argument goes: To color an old black and white movie is artistic rape, motivated by greed, the equivalent of painting a moustache on the MONA LISA. The old black and white movie was the director's vision and should not be tampered with.
I fault these arguments on at least four counts.
First, though by no means first in importance, I query the contention that the old movies were exclusively the directors' vision. There are a few exceptions, but movie making-- even today-- is a hugely collaborative effort among many creators. Most of the black and white movies in question were made in the heyday of the studio system. Despite propaganda to the contrary, these old movies are not the "violated children" of the director. They are, for the most part, the "children" of the old movie moguls and of the staff
producers who oversaw every aspect of each production-producers who worked on the script with the writer and then assigned all other jobs on the film, including the job of the director. Very often, as anyone familiar with the studio system knows, more than one director worked on a picture. The producers of THE WIZARD OF Oz, for example, assigned four directors to the film. The spiritual heirs of the moguls and producers, the true "parents" of these old films, are not the directors but the copyright holders-- who want to show off their children proudly to as large an audience as possible.
As for "violated" -- a child can hardly be considered despoiled when that child remains untouched. The old movies remain preserved in their original black and white state. The colorers of these movies are presenting a modified version, not a substitute version.
Which brings me to my second and far more serious quarrel with the Directors Guild argument: the concept that only one vision of a work may be allowed. Movie makers frequently base their work on literary material and make whatever changes they deem necessary in order to develop their own vision. Isaac Bashevis Singer made some unflattering comments about Barbara Streisand's YENTL, which was adaptation of his story. Streisand indeed changed his vision. She also brought to it her devotion, her memories of her father, her feminism, music and her own vision. In the opinion of many, Streisand made a luminous and touching movie. Creators in the movie industry daily "tamper" with the vision of authors. They change plots, eliminate characters and alter endings. We have all said of this tampering either, "They've ruined it!" or "Better than the original!" Even when a screenplay adaptation of a novel is written by the novelist himself, the spirit of the book can be altered by the tone and pace of the direction or by casting.
I do not hear the directors berating themselves for imposing their vision on the author's vision. They would claim that they are enhancing the original novel and that they obtained the legal right to do so. These are exactly the claims of those who color the black and white movies. In the movie THE COLOR PURPLE, Steven Spielberg changed, lightened, and softened the novel in a deliberate and, to my way of thinking, quite proper attempt to get his movie seen and liked by as many people as possible. It takes courage to disagree with as charismatic, media-beloved, and eloquent a folk hero as John Huston. And I commend the public's courage and independent- mindedness in not allowing itself to be brainwashed by Huston's silver-tongued scorn, and by daring to cast its vote for the color-enhanced version the THE MALTESE FALCON, which Huston excoriates. Mr. Huston, many of whose works I admire, has himself directed movies which, in the opinion of many, have damaged the works on which they are based. Before PRIZZI'S HONOR, which most consider a fine film, he directed ANNIE, beloved by the public but panned by most critics as an overblown and heavy-handed desecration of the nice little stage musical on which it was based. Before that he directed UNDER THE VOLCANO (adapted from the Malcolm Lowry novel) which got some critical acclaim but which the public would not touch. The point I am making is self-evident. Mr. Huston is entitled to his opinions -- and mistakes, and triumphs-- as are the rest of us. We are all entitled to turn out modifications of the works of others without having to
please everyone involved. None of us, however, is entitled to proscribe a modification which displeases us. From time immemorial, in fact, and long before the advent of movies, creators and entrepreneurs alike have exercised the right, both moral and legal, to change the work of others and come up with new concepts. The public in turn has had the right to accept the modified version or reject it. The all important factor is that the original version remain intact and available to those who prefer it. Haydn's original composition was not destroyed by Brahms' VARIATIONS ON A THEME BY HAYDN. Shaw's PYGMALION did not destroy the Greek myth and was not, in turn, destroyed by MY FAIR LADY. Bizet's CARMEN survived the jazzed-up rhythms and changed lyrics of CARMEN JONES. old black and white movies are not destroyed by the existence of a colored video print.
This leads to a point made by the anti-colorists which I find particularly unnerving. It is basically, that the public lacks the wisdom and sophistication to be allowed a choice in this matter. You don't like Bizet in its original? Tough, but I've banned CARMEN JONES. You don't read Chaucer in Middle English? Unfortunate, but I'm burning all the modern English versions of CANTERBURY TALES. You don't want to look at a movie in the form that I consider proper and pure? Too bad, but no way will I let you see that movie in another form that you might enjoy.
There exist many thousands of old black and white movies which, despite their intrinsic entertainment value, do not command an audience today because today's audiences are conditioned to looking at movies in color and cannot be persuaded, cajoled, or bullied into watching them in black and white. Almost all these movies were made before color was actually or economically available. There's little doubt that, had color been available and affordable, it would have been used. A few of these movies are true classics; some are based on classic novels or plays. Almost all are wholesome, moral, satisfying family fare-- the kind of movies most of us devoutly wish were still made, the kind we particularly wish were available to our children. Typical examples are two Errol Flynn adventures based on Sabatini novels, CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE SEA HAWK. In the three months since they have been colored, these two movies have been enjoyed by multi-millions of television viewers-- perhaps ten times the number who saw them in all the decades of their prior syndication on television in black and white. CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE SEA HAWK in my opinion don't qualify as classics, but they are typical of most of the movies to be colored delightful family entertainment and, therefore, cultural treasures. The owners of these treasures certainly don't want to destroy them. They want to share a beloved art form with as many people as possible. Surely a major objective for all of us who work in the motion picture industry and who love movies should be to engender as much enthusiasm, as great an audience, for our product as possible. If there are people who will watch movies in color who would not watch them in black and white (and this is clearly the case), then "hurray for Hollywood!" If they reject the coloring of a few movies because these movies are clearly "right" in black and white, which will doubtless happen in some cases, that's fine too. The public deserves the choice.
(If the stores which rent or sell movie videos discern customer interest in the black and white prints of any color enhanced films, they have only to contact the distributors who
will, of course, be delighted to fill any such demand. There's still a whole world out there of movie houses, film clubs, schools and museums where black and white films or tapes are perpetually available to film buffs. In passing, it may be worth noting that true purists scorn tape and will view their movies only on film. Since the coloring process doesn't apply to film, these purists have no choice they must see the old original black and white films! And, of course, as has frequently been noted, the vast majority of television sets have color knobs which can be turned down if a home viewer prefers black and white.)
My next quarrel with the directors' argument concerns their implication that to color a black and white movie is to destroy a work of art to paint a moustache on the MONA LISA. Well, hardly. And not just because a movie is rarely created by a lone genius, nor because Da Vinci's work is a true masterpiece, as all too few of our films are to the regret of us all. The analogy fails utterly because to paint a moustache on the MONA LISA would mean that the MONA LISA would no longer exist in its original form. The old black and white movies do exist, beautifully preserved on tape and on film. It's worth mentioning in passing, perhaps, that various artists have, indeed, painted a moustache on copies of the MONA LISA, among them Dali and Marcel Duchamps. A mixed-media work by Duchamps, which includes a photographic copy of the MONA LISA to which an impressive moustache has been added, reposes in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Needless to say, its existence in no way impinges on the integrity of the original in the Louvre. The integrity and the existence of the old black and white movies are also not in jeopardy.
One of the sillier arguments of the anti-colorists is that this is a contest between art and commerce. The old movies in contention here were put together in order to make money for all concerned, and I mean all. While we can hope that the writers, directors, et al. enjoyed their work, they did not donate their talents. They worked because they were getting paid handsomely paid as a rule. Moreover, they assumed no risk. They didn't return their salaries with an apology when their movies flopped. It's hardly a moral position for anyone who ever earned big and risk-free money working on a movie to cry, "Greed!" because the copyright owner also wants to earn money. Of course, the owners want their wonderful film libraries to prosper, but they also want to share, with as many people as possible, these harmless, usually edifying, sometimes even triumphantly artistic entertainments. Selling crack to teenagers is greed. Selling delightful colored old movies is not. There's nobody with more of a stake in preventing the destruction of these pictures than the copyright owners-- who, after all, spent multi-millions of dollars to produce or acquire them.
Many fine movies are made today. However, when one looks at the appalling amount of trash some of it dangerous, some merely vulgar or ugly--spewed out by today's movie makers, one has to wonder. The protesting directors don't raise an eyebrow at the sordid junk their colleagues are directing today, yet want to ban a group of wholesome movies which once gathered dust but which are now being lapped up by a large and appreciative audience.
Because I tend to agree with Ted Turner's assessment of
this controversy as "a tempest in a li'l old teapot," I hesitate to invoke Voltaire's oft-recited dictum: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
I definitely don't want the anti-colorists to defend to the death our right to color old movies. I just want them, please, please, to stop trying to deprive us of that right. I am quite taken-aback by an attempt to impose censorship on an absolutely harmless process which damages no person, no property, and no concept.
At issue here are simply matters of taste and choice. Some of us may not like sushi or FINNEGAN'S WAKE or movies with titles like NIGHT-STALKER PUNK-ROCKER ZOMBIE or purple satin pillows with "Mother" embroidered on them or the colored version of THE MALTESE FALCON or Shakespeare's HAMLET. None of us, I trust, would consider legislation to proscribe what we dislike and others may enjoy. One cannot, must not, dictate taste. If I and a majority of movie lovers prefer to watch YANKEE DOODLE DANDY in color, we have every right to do so. In the matter of taste, it's perhaps relevant to note that most critics hated pictures like BEN HUR, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, DR. ZHIVAGO, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and innumerable other all-time 'successes. Let us allow no one to mandate what the public may see and judge for itself.
Nothing has been lost in converting old movies to color since the movies are forever preserved in black and white and are available in their original form. I would think there would be general rejoicing that we are providing entertainment and fun for a large audience which would otherwise not have existed. Since many people watch movies in color which they would have shunned in black and white, I feel we have made a distinct contribution not only to the pleasure of the public but to the well-being of the movies themselves. We, who care about preserving and cherishing them, want others to care about them. With coloring, this is now being achieved. Some of the glory, some of the success is bound to rub off on black and white films. Whichever side we are on in this controversy, we will all be winners because these old movies which we honor will be winners.
Senator LEAHY. If you could just convince the television producers to leave some of the original language and some of the original scenes in movies shown on television, we all would be a darn sight further along. I don't know if the TV networks and the movie producers will ever reach some kind of an agreement on that. As I said before, I don't know why anybody would watch movies on television when the movies are chopped up so badly. Maybe the public could get an absolute guarantee that the films would be shown in their original length and that commercials would be put only at points where it makes some reasonable sense.
Mr. MAYER. That is an ongoing fight.
Senator LEAHY. Let me tell you right now, the networks have won it and the American public has lost terribly. As I said before, I just do not know why anybody would watch a movie on television knowing what the networks do to films. That is a personal opinion, and that does not mean that I am suggesting any kind of legislation.
Go ahead, Mr. Word.