By Robyn Collins
Actor Harry Shearer, best known for voicing 23 characters for the animated television series The Simpsons, has filed a lawsuit against the owners of the classic cult film This is Spinal Tap for failing to pay him decades of royalties and other earnings.
According to the complaint, Vivendi and its agents, including StudioCanal and Universal Music Group, willfully altered accounting data to deny Shearer and his fellow co-creators their rightful stake in the production’s profits. Shearer seeks $125 million in compensatory and punitive damages, reports PRNewswire.
Shearer co-created the 1984 rock documentary spoof, starred as dim-witted bassist Derek Smalls and co-wrote the film soundtrack. In a video he released on social media, he unloaded about the alleged fraud and negligence and how his complaint against Vivendi is “personal.”
“Almost 40 years ago, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Rob Reiner and I created the somewhat legendary band Spinal Tap,” said Shearer. “We thought there was something real and really funny about the characters, and between that inception and the theatrical release of This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, we poured ourselves into nurturing and perfecting the paean to rock loudness that has entertained so many people, even today. But despite the widespread success of the film and its music, we’ve fallen victim to the same sort of fuzzy and falsified entertainment industry accounting schemes that have bedeviled so many other creators. In this instance, the fraud and negligence were just too egregious to ignore. Also, this time, it was personal.”
In 1982, Reiner, Shearer, Guest, and McKean signed an agreement with Embassy Pictures, Inc. for the production, financing and distribution of This Is Spinal Tap. The agreement ensured profit participation payments, at the rate of 40 percent of net receipts, to the creators based on all sources of revenue, including merchandise and music.
After two years of production, the film was released and became a cult favorite and financial success. It was produced for $2.25 million and earned tens of millions of dollars through re-releases, album and singles sales, merchandise sales, and distribution of the film in various formats across the globe over the course of the last 32 years.
Despite the success of the Spinal Tap brand, Shearer says the four creators’ share of total worldwide merchandising income between 1984 and 2006 was a mere $81. And between 1989 and 2006, the total income from soundtrack music sales was reported by Vivendi as $98, according to the complaint.
“This is a simple issue of artists’ rights,” added Shearer. “It is stunning that after all this time, two cinema releases, all the various home video format releases, all the records and CDs, and all the band-themed merchandise still widely available worldwide, the only people who haven’t shared Spinal Tap’s success are those who formed the band and created the film in the first place.”
“Vivendi and its subsidiaries – which own the rights to thousands and thousands of creative works – have, at least in our case, conducted blatantly unfair business practices,” Shearer continued. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if our example were the tip of the iceberg. Though I’ve launched this lawsuit on my own, it is in reality a challenge to the company on behalf of all creators of popular films whose talent has not been fairly remunerated. I am just one person seeking redress for blatant injustice, but I hope this lawsuit will, in its own way, help set a new precedent for faithful and transparent accounting practices, and fair artistic compensation, industry-wide.”