State Court Awards Aspen Theatre Rights to Ingmar Bergman Films

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Mon, 01/26/2009 - 19:00 -- Nick Dager

The entire library of master Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman plus dozens of other films were awarded to Isis Litigation LLC of Aspen Colorado in an unprecedented legal victory that started when Svensk Filmindustri allegedly refused to honor its guaranty of a lease of the Isis Theatre.
 A Colorado District Court appointed a transfer agent for the intellectual property held by Svensk. Isis is considering how to obtain the highest value for the Svensk assets including a potential sale of the catalog.
   “Isis’s right to garnish Svensk’s rights fees in America to satisfy the judgment undoubtedly has had a chilling effect on distribution ” says Isis’s attorney Jack Smith of Denver’s Holland and Hart. “We believe that these films including the outstanding Bergman collection will be of great interest to both distributors and the general film audience. The Swedish film industry and particularly Svensk has produced an admirable body of work over the years. Svensk’s willingness to let this resource go is very difficult to understand. Isis will be embarking on a program to bring these films to a wider audience by sale expanded distribution or possibly by marketing collaborations with other established catalogs.”
     For most of the past decade Bergman’s films were trapped behind the obstinacy of Swedish film company Svensk Filmindustri which steadfastly brushed aside a United States court judgment of nearly $10 million in its legal battle with Isis. 
    Svensk has ignored every judgment and order entered against it in the United States courts to the point that it is now being fined $2 500 a day—more than $900 000 a year—for contempt of court. The latest ruling resulted in the transfer to Isis of the rights to all of Svensk’s film holdings which include Bergman’s portfolio developed over a fifty-year relationship during which the company became a subsidiary of the Bonnier Group. Isis has launched a web site which hosts links to distributors of Svensk’s former film catalog including Bergman’s works. Isis also continues to run where a debt ticker shows in real time exactly how much Svensk owes Isis. A reward of up to $100 000 still stands for anyone who has information that can lead to Isis recovering lost royalties from Svensk.
   “Eight years ago Svensk could have avoided this day by accepting its responsibilities and honoring its guaranty of the lease. And it could have satisfied the judgment entered over five years ago by paying far less than it owes now because of the interest that has continued to accrue on the judgment ” says Smith. “Now Svensk owes almost $3 million more than the original judgment and has lost the rights to all of its film holdings. This is without a doubt an unprecedented event in the history of cinema and the level of arrogance and indifference it took on the part of Svensk to get here is astonishing.”
 Svensk was an owner of Resort Theatres of America which went bankrupt in 2000 and rejected its lease of the Isis Theatre in Aspen. Despite the fact that Carl-Johan Bonnier chairman of the Bonnier Group Svensk’s parent company acknowledged in writing that Svensk “made a guaranty” of the lease Svensk refused to honor the commitment and the matter went into litigation.
            Isis prevailed in the trial and in subsequent appeals but eight years later it has received nothing from Svensk. Without domestic assets to seize Isis has been unable to collect on its judgment as United States courts have limited authority to enforce internationally. 
In a July interview with Variety—which has followed the matter closely—Torsten Larsson head of Bonnier Broadcasting and Entertainment made it clear that Svensk has no intention to comply with the United States court orders.
    A court decision in Colorado means nothing in Sweden ” Larsson told Variety.
 In 2003 Isis was awarded a judgment for over $5.9 million against Svensk to which was later added over $850 000 in costs and fees. Svensk has never paid this however and with interest it now owes Isis close to $10 million.
          The stakes of the litigation were raised significantly earlier this year when Colorado District Court Judge Denise Lynch held Svensk in contempt of court and fined the company $2 500 a day—over $900 000 a year—for disobeying a court order requiring it to disclose its assets to Isis so that the judgment could be enforced. 
          Svensk claims the rights to more than 1 200 films—some of them nearly 100 years old—including the works of Ingmar Bergman. The titles affected by the order include Cries and Whispers Fanny and Alexander Hour of the Wolf The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries as well as such classics as Lasse Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog and Bo Widerberg's Elvira Madigan.
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