Filmmaker Mark Rappaport Fights to Regain Possession of His Work
There is currently a lengthy battle in the film community that few are willing to speak openly about. The arguments have been hashed out on blogs and in comments on Twitter. A petition was signed late last year by over a thousand people, including a majority of the most prominent film critics, academics, and programmers in the world. Filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, and Olivier Assayas signed as well. It all began almost a year ago, but the story has gained little traction in the media.
In September 2012, internationally renowned filmmaker Mark Rappaport (“Rock Hudson’s Home Movies”) sent out an open letter to the film community for help. In it, he claimed that most of his vast archive of work, from a career that has stretched almost four decades, was in the possession of critic/academic Ray Carney, who had been holding on to the materials for him, but was now refusing to return them. The question is: Why?
“He can’t sell the films, he can’t exhibit them, and he can’t distribute them,” Rappaport told ARTINFO in a Skype conversation last week from his home in Paris. “As far as the digital masters, he doesn’t even know what format they’re on and doesn’t have access to the equipment to use them. Nothing is of any use to him.”
Early in 2005, according to Rappaport, he met with Carney in New York. During their meeting, Rappaport told Carney he was selling his apartment and moving to France, but wasn’t sure what to do with his archive of materials, which consists of film prints, video masters, scripts, and more. Carney reportedly jumped at the opportunity to hold on to the items for safekeeping and Rappaport, who thought of Carney a friend, didn’t consider drafting up any sort of contract. Carney had been a tireless supporter of Rappaport and his work – he once called him “a genuine national treasure” – and even recommended the filmmaker for a McArthur Genius Grant. “I didn’t even think of having a written agreement, anymore than I would think of having a written agreement if I had stored the stuff in a friend’s basement,” Rappaport would later write in a blog post.
In January 2010, according to Rappaport, he asked Carney to send him materials that he needed for a film festival in Spain that was showing his work. Carney sent everything Rappaport asked for. Just over two years later, Rappaport requested all the materials back from Carney, citing offers from streaming services for his films and the desire to place his prints in legitimate archival houses. According to Rappaport, after repeated attempts to contact Carney and hearing nothing, he filed suit in Boston on May 9, 2012, in order to regain possession of his materials. After a lengthy set of hearings that stretched through the summer, and, according to Rappaport, a request from Carney’s lawyer that Rappaport pay $27,000 in exchange for the materials, the case seemed to have stalled. Fearing mounting legal fees, Rappaport filed for dismissal on August 31.
When contacted by ARTINFO, Carney’s lawyer said that he didn’t represent Carney anymore, and declined to confirm details of the hearings.
After filing for dismissal, Rappaport reached out to the film community. His open letter was distributed to many people via the filmmaker Jon Jost, who published it on his blog, cinemaelectronica. Jost has been Rappaport’s most vocal supporter, starting the petition that was passed around late last year and working with others to put pressure on Carney to explain himself. Jost has also been vocal about the role of Boston University, where Carney is a tenured professor, in this situation and how the institution should respond. “Given the letters he wrote me, and his behavior, I’d think B.U. has adequate grounds to terminate his tenure,” Jost told ARTINFO in an email.
It was even suggested a protest be staged on Rappaport’s behalf.
“I would love if they would picket around his class every time he tried to make an appearance in school,” Rappaport said, “but I’m in no position to organize this or implement this is any way.”
Rappaport sent a packet containing his open letter, the petition, and other materials to B.U., and Jost has been in contact with university representatives regarding the situation. The school has remained mostly silent on the matter and continues to take a neutral stance.
“We at the College of Communication remain hopeful that the dispute between Professor Carney and Mr. Rappaport over ownership of the materials will be resolved satisfactorily to both parties,” said Thomas Fiedler, the dean of the School of Communications, when reached for comment via email. “Professor Carney has assured me and others at Boston University that he is working toward that goal. This is, and has been, a private dispute not involving the University.”
With the university refusing to interfere in the situation and Rappaport’s options slowly dwindling, some feel that he should return to court.
“The best and most that anyone can do now is hire a lawyer for Mark (he can’t afford to pay any more legal fees) to counter the false claims of Carney’s lawyer,” said critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, referring to Carney’s former lawyer, in an email to ARTINFO. “As usually happens, whoever has the most money has the edge, regardless of the truth of the matter.”
The one person missing from this fight has been Carney himself, who has remained, publically, completely silent on the situation. ARTINFO made several attempts to contact Carney for comment, but as of this writing, he has not responded.
According to a former colleague of Carney’s who wished to remain anonymous, and who spoke to Carney immediately after news of the situation began spreading around the Internet, Carney, at that time, claimed that he never refused to return Rappaport’s materials but only wanted him to cover the shipping costs to send them to France. Carney also said, according to this source, that the online reports circulating were filled with mistruths.
Whatever the case may be, Rappaport has little hope that he will ever see his materials again. “I even knew when we were going into this with Jon that it was not going to work,” Rappaport said. “[Carney]’s belligerent, he’s so involved with himself and his own self-righteousness and his own self-image of himself, his own self-love – he can’t see beyond himself. He’s hopeless.”
Jost, for his part, still anticipates a positive outcome. “I’m not quite so pessimistic,” he said, “and think there still remains a chance Carney will realize his actions are costing far more than whatever he imagines he is gaining.”