How Robert De Niro Helped Thaw Aretha Franklin Documentary Negotiations

Aretha Franklin Amazing Grace
Courtesy Photo

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace.

Conciliatory language in a court order suggests the legal battle over Franklin's "Amazing Grace" movie could finally be nearing an end -- but will it be in time for a Tribeca premiere?

Will the long-delayed, legally troubled Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace ever see the light of day? Maybe, if the lawyers can finally see eye to eye on it. Definitely, if Robert De Niro has anything to say about it.

Sources tell Billboard that De Niro personally called Franklin in early January, beseeching her to come to this spring’s Tribeca Film Festival for a personal appearance in conjunction with a premiere of the movie, which was shot in 1971 but never assembled into a feature until recently. When Franklin told the actor that any showing was in the hands of her attorneys, De Niro is said to have asked for their phone number so he could call and press the case with her legal reps himself.

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If Franklin agreed to screen and promote the film at Tribeca, that would be quite a turnabout, since the last two times Amazing Grace was set to have its world premiere at a film festival -- first in Telluride, then in Toronto, in September -- Franklin was granted court injunctions to stop the showings, which she contended couldn’t take place without her approval.

With each day that passes, it’s looking less likely that Franklin and the film’s producers will make a deal in time for the film to bow at the Tribeca Festival, which begins in mid-April and announces its full programming lineup March 15. But sources in the film’s camp believe De Niro’s personal enthusiasm for showing the movie might have at least helped create a thaw in the once-frosty legal wrangling between Franklin and the producers, even if things don’t defrost to the point of contracts actually being signed in time for a festival showing next month.

The more conciliatory attitude between opposing parties was evident in a joint motion filed in a Colorado district court Monday morning by attorneys for both Franklin and Amazing Grace producer Alan Elliott. Judge John L. Kane signed off on an order that would “close this case,” with the understanding that Elliott will not screen the film without Franklin’s written permission -- effectively continuing the injunction, but without it officially being on the court’s books -- and that both parties will continue to negotiate for its release in good faith.

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What’s at stake is not just a Tribeca premiere, but a theatrical rollout with a major distributor. A source in the film’s camp says that a multimillion-dollar offer is sitting on the table from a film company that is waiting for all parties to sign off. Initially, Elliott -- who bought the raw, Sydney Pollack-directed footage from Warner Bros. -- contended that he could make a deal without Franklin’s approval, saying that a personal services contract she signed with Warner Seven Arts in the late '60s covered her work on the documentary. But it became evident amid the Telluride furor, if not before, that no distributor would touch a film that was being protested by its beloved star in and out of court, and negotiations to bring Franklin officially into the project intensified over the last six months.

“It makes sense for all sides,” says a source close to Franklin’s camp. “It allows for unlimited time for negotiation without having a ticking bomb about to explode and make everybody scramble.” Since Franklin got the initial injunction in a Denver court on the morning of the film’s planned Telluride premiere last Labor Day weekend, her attorneys had been granted five extensions, the last of which was for 45 days and due to expire March 10.

Jon Cantor, one of the lawyers who has represented Franklin at the Dykema law firm, describes the current d√©tente between sides as hopeful but tentative. “Nothing is for sure until everything is signed,” says Cantor. “We continue to be in negotiations to try to resolve it. A lot of people are involved, and it’s difficult to get everybody to agree on something, but hopefully we’ll get an agreement. Everybody got tired of being pushed to the limit about getting these extensions. We were able to convince Alan that it was best to go this route and hopefully get a negotiation done, and if we do, great, and if we don’t, c'est la vie.”

Could a deal still be reached in time to make De Niro happy? “We have been asked to be allowed for it to be shown if we can get our deal done,” Cantor says. “There’s hope we can get it done before that. But everyone involved has to agree to show it [at Tribeca]. It’s not just Miss Franklin making these decisions. Other people making these decisions have to come to an agreement about, if it’s to be shown, what’s best for the picture. They’re sensitive negotiations.”

(Among the many sensitivities: Both Franklin and Elliott are represented by the William Morris Agency, which may be collectively readier than anybody to see the standoff reach a happy ending.)

Elliott’s attorney, Lincoln Bandlow, expressed relief at the compromise represented in Monday’s court order, maintaining that “it’s in everybody’s interest that this film gets released. I hope everybody realizes we’re on the same page about that desire.”

Prior to the Telluride brouhaha last September, the film had already racked up kudos via screenings for music and film insiders, with D’Angelo describing the film to The Hollywood Reporter as “breathtaking and spellbinding” and The Roots’ Questlove calling it “easily Oscar documentary material.”


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