The composited camera negative of Citizen Kane was destroyed in a New Jersey film laboratory fire in the 1970s. Subsequent prints were derived from a master positive (a fine-grain preservation element) made in the 1940s and originally intended for use in overseas distribution. Modern techniques were used to produce a pristine print for a 50th Anniversary theatrical reissue in 1991 which Paramount released for then owner Turner Broadcasting System, which earned $1.6 million in North America.
In 1955, RKO sold the American television rights to its film library, including Citizen Kane, to C&C Television Corp. In 1960, television rights to the pre-1956 RKO library were acquired by United Artists. RKO kept the non-broadcast television rights to its library.
In 1976, when home video was in its infancy, entrepreneur Snuff Garrett bought cassette rights to the RKO library for what United Press International termed "a pittance." In 1978 The Nostalgia Merchant released the film through Media Home Entertainment. By 1980 the 800-title library of The Nostalgia Merchant was earning $2.3 million a year. "Nobody wanted cassettes four years ago," Garrett told UPI. "It wasn't the first time people called me crazy. It was a hobby with me which became big business." RKO Home Video released the film on VHS and Betamax in 1985.
In 1984 The Criterion Collection released the film as its first LaserDisc. It was made from a fine grain master positive provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. When told about the then new concept of having an audio commentary on the disc, Welles was skeptical but said "theoretically, that’s good for teaching movies, so long as they don’t talk nonsense.":283 In 1992 Criterion released a new 50th Anniversary Edition LaserDisc. This version had an improved transfer and additional special features, including the documentary The Legacy of Citizen Kane and Welles's early short The Hearts of Age.
Turner Broadcasting System acquired broadcast television rights to the RKO library in 1986 and the full worldwide rights to the library in 1987. The RKO Home Video unit was reorganized into Turner Home Entertainment that year. In 1991 Turner released a 50th Anniversary Edition on VHS and as a collector's edition that includes the film, the documentary Reflections On Citizen Kane, Harlan Lebo's 50th anniversary album, a poster and a copy of the original script. In 1996, Time Warner acquired Turner and Warner Home Video absorbed Turner Home Entertainment. Today, Time Warner's Warner Bros. unit has distribution rights for the film.
In 2001 Warner Home Video released a 60th Anniversary Collectors Edition DVD. The two-disc DVD included feature-length commentaries by Ebert and Bogdanovich, as well as the documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane. It was simultaneously released on VHS. The DVD was criticized for being "too bright, too clean; the dirt and grime had been cleared away, but so had a good deal of the texture, the depth, and the sense of film grain."
In 2003, Welles's daughter Beatrice Welles sued Turner Entertainment, claiming the Welles estate is the legal copyright holder of the film. She claimed that Welles's deal to terminate his contracts with RKO meant that Turner's copyright of the film was null and void. She also claimed that the estate of Orson Welles was owed 20% of the film's profits if her copyright claim was not upheld. In 2007 she was allowed to proceed with the lawsuit, overturning the 2004 decision in favor of Turner Entertainment on the issue of video rights.
In 2011 it was released on Blu-ray disc and DVD in a 70th anniversary box set. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "the Blu-ray release of the year." Supplements included everything available on the 2001 Warner Home Video release, as well as the film RKO 281 and packaging extras that include a hardcover booklet and a folio containing a reproduction of the original souvenir program, miniature lobby cards and other memorabilia. The Blu-ray DVD was scanned as 4K resolution from three different 35mm prints and rectified the quality issues of the 2001 DVD.
In the 1980s, Citizen Kane became a catalyst in the controversy over the colorization of black-and-white films. One proponent of film colorization was Ted Turner, whose Turner Entertainment Company owned the RKO library. A Turner Entertainment spokesperson initially stated that Citizen Kane would not be colorized, but in July 1988 Turner said, "Citizen Kane? I'm thinking of colorizing it." In early 1989 it was reported that two companies were producing color tests for Turner Entertainment. Criticism increased when filmmaker Henry Jaglom stated that shortly before his death Welles had implored him "don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons."
In February 1989 Turner Entertainment president Roger Mayer announced that work to colorize the film had been stopped due to provisions in Welles's 1939 contract with RKO that "could be read to prohibit colorization without permission of the Welles estate." Mayer added that Welles's contract was "quite unusual" and "other contracts we have checked out are not like this at all." Turner had only colorized the final reel of the film before abandoning the project. In 1991 one minute of the colorized test footage was included in the BBC Arena documentary The Complete Citizen Kane.[ai]
The colorization controversy was a factor in the passage of the National Film Preservation Act in 1988 which created the National Film Registry the following year. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings reported that "one major reason for doing this is to require people like the broadcaster Ted Turner, who's been adding color to some movies and re-editing others for television, to put notices on those versions saying that the movies have been altered".