07 May 2013

Farrer Kane launches 'Talking Heads'

Interview with Peter Riva, the man responsible for Marlene Dietrich's brand

Marlene Dietrich

At Farrer Kane we're lucky enough to meet a variety of interesting people working within the realm of communications. We've decided to launch a regular 'talking heads' slot where we can hear more about what makes other communicators tick and are kicking things off with an interview with Peter Riva, the man responsible for protecting the legacy and brand of screen icon, Marlene Dietrich.

How do you go about protecting her image and legacy?

The first step was to avoid having to dissipate her archive. The Senator for Culture for the City of Berlin approached us to acquire the entire archive as part of the re-unification process in Germany. They had the budget, they had the need ("The anti-Nazi returns to Berlin" were the headlines), and they had the expertise. Since that placement, they have built a stunning museum, with excellent staff, the FilmMuseum Berlin near Potsdamer Platz in the Sony Center. The second step was to consolidate her business contracts and rights. With the help of expert attorneys in Munich and Los Angeles, we proceeded over the next 12 years to sue transgressors, prevail 100% of the time and even, in one case, win a case in the highest court in Germany. At times the cost of these actions seemed prohibitive, but in the end necessary. The third step was to secure trademark and other protection for her name, use of her image and signature. And finally, but perhaps most importantly, was to make sure that the truth of her work, as an example for future generations, is made freely available to students, researchers and artists. In the 20 years since her passing, we have encouraged, abetted and counselled well over 100 such projects.

How have things changed with the advent of digital and social media?
The great difficulty facing any legacy archive is the purveyance of images and video and audio on the Internet irrespective of copyright or other rights. In our case, we try and keep atop of these individuals, many of whom just make a mistake. Others who are more determined to profit on items which are not theirs we are more vigorous with. Why? Because in the end culture is stifled without the need for innovation and research. If all one has to do is copy someone else's work, in the end all culture will become moribund. This is not about copyright and licence fees; it is about encouraging innovation, new vision, neither of which can happen if the trail of money is paved with other's work.

How do you maintain interest in celebrity brands?
The words "star" and now "legend" are bandied about for all sorts of wanna-be fixture celebrities these days. In the end, the work, the talent, Marlene performed speaks for itself, whether it be in fashion, song, cinema or celebrity. Recently, we have been moving towards consolidation within a Marlene Dietrich Foundation - set up expressly to encourage participation of like-quality brands in philanthropic programs, awards and funding.

What are your views on celebrity product endorsement?
That's a funny question, because celebrity is such a loose 15-minute window these days. Or perhaps 5 minutes at times! Real endorsement, one that is of value to the consumer, manufacturer or cultural institution, depends on the quality, the history, the excellence of the person labelled celebrity. Every celebrity can endorse something, but the right horse for the right course is an apt metaphor here.

There have been a number of high-profile bio-pics recently. How much input/control can you expect in these scenarios?
Truthfully? None. That business is set up that way. Bio-pics are not documentaries, they are entertainment. What you can do, and should do, is set iron-clad limits in any contract. These limits are set in place to make sure that the legend is not bastardised in the process. In the end, the bio-pic is worth nothing compared to the long-term benefit of the cultural growth based on of a lifetime of excellence and inspiration yet to come.

Do you have any future plans for the Dietrich brand? Is there a film on the cards?
We keep trying...it's all Hollywood (and once the BBC). The problem is Marlene needs about 12 hours to get her whole career in. Hard to manage in today's marketplace! I keep thinking Bollywood will make an epic...or, perhaps not.

Given Marlene's publicised desire to control her own image, what do you think she would have made of the modern media?
Her control was only ever about excellence, not vanity. She knew what was right and forced others to see reason. On the other hand, Marlene loved new media, new techniques. Quickly she endorsed and did radio, then TV and she adored video machines. She would have made a great director. The Internet would have been a giant library for her intellect and fed her thirst for new, exciting, cultural events. I am pretty sure she would have made mini-movies too, as she was always dreaming up plots and stories. However, the quality would never have been compromised. Some of the dross that parades as "new art" used to anger her. The Turner Prizes, each year, used to earn her scorn, not because of the vision of the artists, but because of the short-cuts taken in execution. She always felt that if you are doing anything, do it properly, with excellence, or do not bother at all - you have a duty to the public, not merely to yourself.