The creators of the iconic 1984 mockumentary film This Is Spinal Tap – Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner – are preparing to head to trial with Vivendi-owned Canal Plus Group subsidiary StudioCanal in Los Angeles in the coming months.
The original complaint, filed in October 2016 for breach of contract, fraud and anti-competitive business practices in respect of StudioCanal’s management of rights in the film and its associated intellectual properties, continues against StudioCanal and Ron Halpern, StudioCanal’s then senior executive.
Although UMG and StudioCanal are under the same ownership, the difference between the two entertainment companies’ strategies has become apparent in the past.
In 2017, MBW reported that Canal Plus was refusing to pay French collection/licensing society SACEM any royalties for authors’ rights.
According to figures published by parent company Vivendi last month, UMG’s revenues for the first nine months of 2019 ended September 30 were €5.05bn ($5.7bn), with the Canal Plus Group reporting €3.8bn ($4.2bn) in revenues for the first nine months of the year.
The Spinal Tap creators’ complaint states that Vivendi, through its agent StudioCanal, wilfully ‘manipulated certain accounting data, failed to protect the rights entrusted to it and ignored contractually-obligated accounting and reporting processes’.
The action seeks ‘hundreds of millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages, and a declaration that the co-creators own all copyright and trademark interests in the film property’, states the press release announcing the trial preparations.
The litigation against StudioCanal and senior executive Ron Halpern, now shifts to a pre-trial discovery phase.
This gives the plaintiffs the right to seek full access to StudioCanal’s internal books and records going back decades – since the creators first offered up for exploitation the independent film they had created.
This is Spinal Tap, which you can read more about here, was produced on a shoestring budget and has become a cult classic since its first theatrical run in 1984.
The original complaint states that the music and merchandise sold in the three decades after the film’s release earned tens of millions of dollars in revenue through re-releases, album and singles sales, merchandise sales, and distribution of the film in various formats around the world.
“Even with the limited information we now have, it is clear that StudioCanal shielded millions of dollars in revenues from us and manipulated the accountings in their favor.”
“The past year has felt like being stuck in limbo. We’re now back and unleashed, ready to burrow deep into StudioCanal’s ledgers to see what commercial secrets and corporate failings they have concealed,” said Harry Shearer, TIST co-creator and band bassist.
“Their failed motions to dismiss, delay and obfuscate won’t help the studio now we are able to dig up what they have been hiding all these years. We get to depose key figures, including top executives of StudioCanal and Vivendi, such as Mr. Ron Halpern.
“They reported that we were entitled to $81 between the four of us, for 35 years of merchandise sales. Even with the limited information we now have, it is clear that StudioCanal shielded millions of dollars in revenues from us and manipulated the accountings in their favor.”
Christopher Guest, who played guitarist Nigel Tufnel, added: “It’s been revelatory. We’ve been woefully underestimated by StudioCanal.
“They simply refused to acknowledge us or our concerns. In discussions over the recordings UMG “got it” and throughout showed respect for talent, for intellectual property and the creative process.
“UMG’s approach eventually brought about an amiable and equitable solution to our music claims. StudioCanal, however, has been dismissive to the point of contemptuous.”
“When my clients filed this case three years ago, they did so seeking equity, fair treatment and fealty to the contractual arrangement between the film’s creators and the studio.”
Stanton “Larry” Stein
Lead litigator Stanton “Larry” Stein, added: “The stay in proceedings is now over. We move with determination to the next phase, in which we will seek comprehensive discovery of StudioCanal’s accounting procedures and licensing transactions.
“When my clients filed this case three years ago, they did so seeking equity, fair treatment and fealty to the contractual arrangement between the film’s creators and the studio.
“What’s extraordinary is the strength of the French studio’s grip on the film’s rights, having failed to properly guard, or exploit them over the past 35 years. We look forward to entering the discovery phase and bringing this case to trial.
“The creative industry in Hollywood will be closely watching this litigation as we go onwards to trial.”
“The film was made on the thinnest of budgets. And so many creative people worked hard contributing their talents to a film that has stood the test of time.”
Co-creator and TIST Director Rob Reiner, said: “This isn’t just about the four of us – it never has been. The film was made on the thinnest of budgets. And so many creative people worked hard contributing their talents to a film that has stood the test of time.
“That’s why we took on this fight. Not just for us, but for all hardworking artists who should get their fair share from their creative efforts.”
“StudioCanal had a duty to properly exploit film and image rights and collect revenues. They haven’t, so we will. It is time to return this beloved film to its rightful owners.”
Michael McKean, lead singer and guitarist David St Hubbins in TIST, added: “After all the delays we are closing in. “StudioCanal has had three years to take our claims seriously – yet focused instead on trying to get rid of us.
“Now that they have failed to swat us away procedurally, we are about to expose their other legions of failings. Year after year, brand pirates have been left to run amok, as recently as last month taunting us via social media, while flooding the market with unauthorized Spinal Tap t-shirts and other products.
“StudioCanal had a duty to properly exploit film and image rights and collect revenues. They haven’t, so we will. It is time to return this beloved film to its rightful owners.”Music Business Worldwide