I have an old movie that I’d absolutely love to rewrite. I was wondering how you go about doing it. How do you find out who has the rights to the original screenplay, and is there anything else I would need to do?
Start by looking for what company made the picture. On IMDb, look up the movie’s page, then click on "Company Credits." The top entity listed is usually the place to start.
If the studio still exists, such as Columbia Pictures, there’s a very good chance that they still own the remake rights to that movie. Call information in Los Angeles to get their main phone number, then call it and ask for the rights department. (It may have a different name, or be a subset of the legal department, but every studio has somebody who handles exactly these kind of rights.) Whoever you end up speaking with will probably have you fax over your information request, then promptly lose that fax until you call them back and pester them some more.
At this point, all you probably want to know is whether the company owns the remake rights for that picture. If they do, it’s up to you to figure out your next step, be that approaching the studio with your idea, or buying the studio’s remake rights (with your money or someone else’s).
If the studio doesn’t own the remake rights, hopefully they know who does. Repeat the process of calling/faxing/waiting until you find out exactly who controls these rights.
What if the company who produced the original movie no longer exists? If the movie is available on videotape or DVD, start with whatever company distributed it. Call their home video department (very likely based in Los Angeles) and ask to speak with somebody in their rights department. In order to distribute the movie, they had to secure rights from somebody. Find out who that was.
If you’re at a dead end, with no more numbers to call, start going through the names in the credit block. You can track down contact information for writers through the WGA, directors through the DGA, and producers (sometimes) through the Producers Guild of America. Of these three, producers are most likely to have information about who controls the rights for their movies.
Keep in mind that just because someone says they own the remake rights, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. You’ll need to have an experienced entertainment lawyer review the chain of title to make sure all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s crossed.