"A Story That Needed To Be Rescued
" - The film rights to Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy were tied
up for decades. Alexandra Gill talks with the producer who got his MBA
to help him detangle the legal labyrinth :
VANCOUVER — With perseverance
and a sense of national pride that would have made Dunstan Ramsay proud,
a small Vancouver film-production company has repatriated and reunified
the world rights to Robertson Davies's famous Deptford Trilogy, succeeding
where Martin Scorsese, Norman Jewison, Dan Aykroyd, Nicholas Meyer, Tom
Hulce, MGM and many major Canadian film companies have all tried before
The Canadian literary masterpiece, which explores the country's deep-seated
feelings of inferiority through the eyes of its small-town protagonist
(in addition to myth, murder, magic, Jungian psychology and a myriad of
other heady themes), is now being turned into a six-hour television miniseries
by Vancouver's Novalis Entertainment.
So how did president and chief executive
officer Charles K. Pitts manage to disentangle the chain of title rights
to the three novels -- a contractual dispute that had been tied in knots
for nearly 30 years, and one his lawyer says is the most complex he's
ever seen -- from a humble office in his Vancouver garage?
"By not giving up, doing the research and going back to get my MBA
-- something I swore I'd never do," says Pitts, who has previously
adapted Alice Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women (for television) and
A Wilderness Station (a feature film that was retitled The Edge of Madness
and directed by Anne Wheeler).
Pitts picked up the gauntlet in 1994,
when he first inquired about optioning the rights, which were then presumably
held by Rick Butler, the Toronto producer who made the television adaptation
of the satirical play Maggie and Pierre, written by Paul Thompson and
The complications, however, go back to 1976, when the rights to the three
novels (Fifth Business, The Manticore and World of Wonders) were sold
outright to U.S. producer Herb Jaffe without any reversion clause. (The
rights typically revert to the author after about seven years if the option
to make a film has not been exercised.)
Jaffe, in turn, later flipped the rights
to Nicholas Meyer, who is best known for directing Star Trek: The Wrath
of Khan. Meyer then got involved with Butler, who later made a secret
side deal by selling off some of the rights to New Brunswick-nativeJoe
Medjuck, an executive producer who has had a close working relationship
with director Ivan Reitman that goes back to Ghostbusters.
By the mid-eighties, about five or six different parties had their hands
on the project, including Telefilm Canada and the Ontario Media Development
Corporation, making it nearly impossible for any interested producer to
pull it all together and make a movie. In addition, when Pitts first approached
Butler (who had yet to reveal Medjuck's involvement), the producer was
asking for $1-million, an outrageously prohibitive sum.
About six years later, Pitts began pursuing
the deal again, after a chance correspondence with author John Irving,
who had tipped him off to the arcane machinations behind what both considered
a travesty to Canadian literature.
Irving's wife, Janet Turnbull Irving, had at one time run the Toronto
branch of Curtis Brown, the venerable New York literary agency that had
made the fatal error of selling the rights to Davies's trilogy without
a reversion clause, and had been kept in the dark about Butler's deal
with Medjuck. The Irvings, who were close to the late author, had themselves
attempted several times to untangle the web. The agent, Perry Knowlton,
was also a very good friend of Davies's and was deeply distressed by the
situation. His son, Timothy, told Pitts that if he could somehow manage
to help out, the family would be most appreciative.
In the meantime, Pitts, a graduate of
the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, had returned
to school to complete an MBA at Queen's University. Shored by some "enlightened"
financial backers, Pitts dedicated his degree to the execution of a business
plan that would help him secure the film deal.
"I knew it was going to take a military strategy to solve it once
and for all," says Pitts, whose strategic analysis and plan for the
project, coincidentally, received the highest mark in his executive class
In January, 2003, Pitts began probing
more deeply into the Butler-Medjuck deal. Once he had confirmed it, Medjuck
proved to be a reasonable business ally. Four months later, they had signed
off on an agreement. Still, there were the Telefilm and OMDC contracts
to be cleaned up and a large sum of money that had to change hands.
"It was a lot of money," says Pitts. "More than was easy
After Pitts had reassembled and paid
for all the pieces to the puzzle, he still had to go to the Davies family,
who had claim to the U.S. rights, thanks to a contractual law (which doesn't
exist in Canada) that allows the rights to lapse back to the heirs or
estate after an author dies.
"Butler and Medjuck couldn't have done much without the U.S. rights,"
Pitts explains. "This was the final step, but not an easy one, understandably.
The family had been traumatized by 30 years of negotiations. They were
extremely doubtful when some unknown in Vancouver called up and says he
had found a solution."
"It's very unique," says Arthur Evrensel, the Vancouver lawyer
with Heenan Blaikie who represents Pitts.
"I had never done anything like
this before," says Evrensel, who admits that he advised his client
several times to just give up and walk away. "It was such a headache.
There had been some major players involved and they couldn't make it happen.
I wouldn't have had the patience. It takes a certain personality and Charles
definitely has it."
Pitts, who is now scouting around for
a director and cast members, says his dream project was worth every minute
of hard work and persistence. "Everybody has their list of their
top 10 films they would like to make. The Deptford Trilogy is at the very
top of my list. It's the jewel in the crown of Canadian literature and
it had been swallowed in the quagmire of L.A. It's a story that needed
to be rescued, that's for sure. And when I found out what was going on,
it made me annoyed enough to want to do it."
The trilogy's twisting trip
to the screen
1970: Fifth Business, the first novel
in Robertson Davies's Deptford Trilogy, is published. The New York Times
calls it "[an] enigmatic novel, elegantly written and driven by irresistible
1972: The Manticore is published.
1975: World of Wonders is published.
1976: Curtis Brown Ltd. in New York sells the film rights to the three
novels to U.S. producer Herb Jaffe.
Late 70s: Jaffe flips the rights to Nicholas Meyer, the U.S. producer
best known for directing Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.
1981: Meyer signs a new deal with Davies.
1988: Meyer assigns rights to Nova Scotia-based producer Rick Butler.
1988: Butler makes the first in a series of agreements with Joe Medjuck,
a New Brunswick native and producer.
1993: An amendment to a 1992 option agreement between Butler and Meyer
gives Medjuck all the film rights to the books if various terms are met.
1994: Charles K. Pitts, president and CEO of Vancouver's Novalis Entertainment,
approaches Butler about buying the film rights. Butler asks for $1-million.
1995: Robertson Davies dies.
1995: Medjuck exercises his option with Butler, securing all the Deptford
rights. Butler disputes this action.
Late 1990s: By this time, Martin Scorsese, Norman Jewison, Dan Aykroyd,
Nicholas Meyer, Tom Hulce, MGM and many major Canadian film companies
have all tried, unsuccessfully, to secure the film rights to the trilogy.
2002: Pitts enters the executive MBA program at Queen's University with
plans to secure the rights to the trilogy. Pitts's analysis and plan for
the project receive the highest marks in his class.
2003 - Winter-Spring: Pitts begins pursuing the deal again, and confirms
Medjuck's involvement in the rights issue. Four months later, the two
sign off on an agreement to secure Medjuck's rights to the books.
2003 - Summer: After a chance correspondence with author John Irving,
Pitts is tipped off by Irving's lawyer Alan Hergott about the deal between
Medjuck and Butler over the Deptford rights being possibly unresolved.
2004: Pitts co-ordinates the parties to fulfill all outstanding contracts.
June, 2005: Pitts signs an agreement with Davies's heirs (who still own
the U.S. rights), giving him U.S. television rights to the three books.
Several broadcasters express interest in his plan to develop a six-hour
Today: Pitts sends the following call out to Canadian filmmaking talent
around the world: "Please call home immediately and report for duty.
Our mission is to make nothing less than a film worthy of the ages."
- Alexandra Gill (Globe and Mail, Sept. 27)