"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 but failed.

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 Linda Griffiths.

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 that year.

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 to get."

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 narrative force."

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 miniseries.

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)



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