Imagine if, after Mr. Rogers died, a company run by somebody not connected to the Rogers family in any way used financial leverage and the law to gain the rights to his likeness, and profited off of his image for 26 years without giving his surviving family members a dime of royalties.
This is the picture Joshua Rofé’s documentary “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayals & Greed” paints of Bob Ross Inc., which is built around the image of the long-deceased painter Bob Ross and run by the Kowalski family, whom the documentary alleges refused to be interviewed, and allegedly deterred others from participating in the documentary for fear of being sued. As such, the documentary is heavily slanted towards its main interview subject — Bob Ross’ son, Steve Ross — as well as many other people on Steve’s side, including Bob’s former painting instructor, John Thamm. However, there was a simple solution the PR team at Bob Ross Inc. could have employed to prevent the film’s narrative from being overtly negative against them: Agree to appear in the film and share their side of the conflict.
The film documents the life of Bob Ross, who came from a simple upbringing, but found passion and talent for not only painting, but teaching painting to others. In his early career, he made a modest living traveling around the United States with the painter Bill Alexander, teaching painting workshops and classes, but his life changed forever when he met a woman named Annette Kowalski, whom the documentary alleges was a frequent attendee of his classes. Anette and Bob developed a business relationship, and her and her husband, Walt, helped him get his famous PBS show “The Joy of Painting”, which gained him international recognition.
Through the eyes of Steve Ross and the other interview subjects, we learn that Bob cared little about the business side of the enterprise — he was a pure soul who just wanted to introduce painting into the lives of everyday people, and he did take genuine joy when learning that he made a positive impact in people’s lives. The film does reveal that parts of his persona were manufactured and played up for TV — for instance he intentionally took up a gentle demeanor and spoke in soft tones because most of his audience was female, and his afro was not natural — but the film does claim that he wasn’t that much different off-camera; he was just naturally kind. And it does admit he wasn’t perfect, as it investigates an alleged affair between Bob and Annette that put a rift in his marriage.
Bob Ross died in 1995, something Bob Ross Inc.’s “About Bob Ross” page on their website conveniently leaves out on their website at the time of writing this review. And in his final years, Bob Ross Inc. started selling paints and art supplies with his name on it — something he had little interest in doing, but enacted strict quality control over, which the film claims the Kowalskis didn’t like. In fact, the film claims they had only one thing in mind in regard to their business relationship with Bob: profit, which deeply contrasted with Bob’s altruistic nature.
The film claims that they went so far as to constantly pester Bob on his deathbed to sign over the rights to his name — which he refused — and underplayed his funeral so that it wouldn’t hurt their brand, which has unfortunately worked. Steve Ross admits he still gets contacted by people thinking his dad is still alive, as despite the fact that he died in 1995 — he’s been dead almost as long as I’ve been alive — it hasn’t stuck in the public consciousness, which has greatly benefitted Bob Ross Inc. as it has allowed him to linger in popular culture in ways other dead celebrities haven’t been able to.
After he died, the film claims that Bob left the rights to his name to Steve, but gave control of the estate to an older family member who signed them away to the Kowalskis when they threatened to sue. Steve claims in the film that he hasn’t received any money from at the sales of any Bob Ross product Bob Ross Inc. has produced because of this, which is infuriating, as it goes directly against his father’s wishes. It’s a great example of how money, power, name recognition and institutional influence doesn’t necessarily make a business entity legitimate, especially if that business is built off on shaky foundations.
Needless to say, the film doesn’t present a flattering portrayal of Bob Ross Inc., and while it’s easy to point out that the film is missing the Kowalskis’ side of things, it’s really hard to defend their business when the film claims they refused to participate. The best we can get come from an Aug. 25 statement from Bob Ross Inc. addressing the film, part of which reads:
“While the producers of the Netflix film did contact Bob Ross Inc. twice, in late August and October 2020, each request arrived replete with a confounding lack of transparency. At no time did they pose specific questions to Bob Ross Inc. or ask for any form of rebuttal to specific assertions they had decided to include in the film. Nor was it stated that they had a distribution deal with Netflix.
“Had the filmmakers communicated with openness in their correspondence, Bob Ross Inc. could have provided valuable information and context in an attempt to achieve a more balanced and informed film. However, as the director and producers carried on with the production without the perspective of Bob Ross Inc., the final narrative lacks considerable nuance and accuracy and carries a clear bias in favor of those who were interviewed. After seeing media reports about the film’s summer release, Bob Ross Inc. attempted to reach out to the filmmakers in May 2021 to offer comment. They did not return calls or emails and finally responded through their attorney. We provided a comprehensive statement, and the filmmakers chose not to use it.”
While lengthy, their statement is too little, too late, and highlights bad PR practices on behalf of Bob Ross Inc. unless they recognized, not unlike Carole Baskin’s participation in “Tiger King”, that their involvement in the film would just make the company look worse. Still, they need to properly address the film’s most poignant accusations that they used their influence and money to essentially bully the Ross family into signing over the rights to Bob’s name — if true, it not only makes them the illegitimate owners to those rights (if not legally, morally), and a direct contradiction to everything Bob Ross stood for.
“Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed” is a very entertaining watch. It’s well-edited and well-paced, though it is glaringly one-sided — but I can’t necessarily fault the filmmakers for that. However, without that key other side, the film’s narrative is noticeably unfinished, and for that reason, I elect to not give this film a score.
As for Bob Ross Inc., there are plenty of other and better art companies to buy from.