Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer began working on an idea in 1978 that would eventually become the movie This Is Spinal Tap in 1984. They performed music gigs and made a 20-minute demo, but were rejected by studio after studio until the movie was finally made on a budget of $2 million, and released in 1984. This Is Spinal Tap performed modestly in theaters, but found success on home video, and is now a classic. As the 30th anniversary of the movie approached, Harry Shearer realized that neither he nor the other three principles had been paid any residuals, despite conceiving, writing, performing music, and acting in the film.
Sometimes it takes a malcontent to disturb something as intractable as Hollywood accounting practices. By the terms of the contract they signed in 1982 with Embassy Pictures, the four creators of Spinal Tap are entitled to a portion of income from the film, including merchandise and music, provided certain benchmarks are hit. Given the wild afterlife of This Is Spinal Tap, it seems impossible that anyone with a piece of the movie hasn’t made money. And yet this is Hollywood, where studios have claimed that some of the highest-grossing films—hits such as Return of the Jedi, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy—somehow haven’t turned a profit. As David Zucker, one of the creators of Airplane!, once said of his own sleeper hit, “It made so much money that the studio couldn’t hide it fast enough.”
With Embassy out of business, the theatrical rights to Spinal Tap bounced around from Coca-Cola to De Laurentiis Entertainment Group to a L’Oréal property named Parafrance to, around 1990, Studiocanal, a subsidiary of the French company Vivendi SA. The home-video rights followed a separate path and landed with Sony Music Entertainment. None of those companies paid the four creators, and no one did anything about it until Shearer finally lost his patience. “We were approaching the 30th anniversary,” he says, “and this low-burning lightbulb begins to go off—‘Hey, wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ ”
An investigation into the film's accounting showed that the four were owed $81 in merchandizing income and $98 in album income. Smelling a rat, Shearer filed a $125 million lawsuit last year. In 2017, Reiner, McKean, and Guest joined the lawsuit and raised the amount to $400 million, plus reversion of the copyright to the name Spinal Tap.
Vivendi, in its response to the lawsuit, argued that the creators made the film as a work for hire, and were hence not entitled to the copyright. It seems crazy, given that there’s plenty of evidence the four of them invented the band years before making their deal with Embassy, but calling a contribution work-for-hire is fairly common in copyright cases. In Shearer’s latest filing, he calls Vivendi’s position on the copyright a threat to scare him away from pressing his profit case. He also says it’s hypocritical for the company to cling to a film’s copyright while suggesting, based on what it claims is the film’s poor performance, there’s no money to be made with it.
You can read the details of the story, and some background on Hollywood accounting, at Bloomberg. -via Digg