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Home » Blog » Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer sues for millions in film profits

Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer sues for millions in film profits

harry shearer dressed as his spinal tap character stands under the spinal tap logoThe 1984 rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap attained was an immediate cult classic and has entertained audiences repeatedly for the past thirty-two years. Even if you’ve never seen the rockumentary, which follows the fictional heavy metal band ‘Spinal Tap’, you’ve probably had it quoted at you. Ever heard of an amp that goes up to 11?

If none of this rings any bells, you’re probably in some sort of minority. This Is Spinal Tap was a hit with audiences when it first came out in theaters and its sensational status has carried over to the next generation. It’s the kind of movie you can talk about with your dad without forcing the conversation. It’s important. Don’t believe me? Ask the U.S. Library of Congress, who deemed This Is Spinal Tap a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant film” in 2002.

All this being said, there’s a good chance you don’t care about Harry Shearer’s lawsuit if you don’t know about Spinal Tap. He was Spinal Tap’s bassist, Derek Smalls. He also co-created the band, the movie, and of course, the soundtrack. Apparently he’s “most famous” for voicing twenty-three different characters on The Simpsons, but who cares. We’re talking about Spinal Tap.

This Is Typical Hollywood

Harry Shearer is seeking $125,000,000 from the corporations and executives who wound up with the rights to This Is Spinal Tap — not just for him, but for his fellow masterminds and all the other people who worked hard to make the film a reality.

$125,000,000 is a huge number. But it’s not so outrageous when one considers how popular This Is Spinal Tap was and still is today, and when one considers the fact that Shearer and the rest of the creators only made $179 between its release and 2006. That just doesn’t add up.

Shearer and his partners originally signed with Embassy Pictures, Inc. to pay for the movie. The budget wound up amounting to $2.25 million, but according to Shearer’s lawsuit (as well as common sense), the music and merchandising have since garnered many more millions, tens of millions. Spinal Tap apparel and other such merchandise is everywhere, there’s a soundtrack, that soundtrack has been re-released and re-released, the movie itself has been redistributed all over the world.

Shearer and his three co-creators signed a contract that gave them 40 percent of net revenue. From 1984 to 2006, their share of merchandising profits was a whopping $81. From 1989 to 2006, their share of soundtrack sales somehow amounted to only $98. Obviously, something’s up.

The blame allegedly lies with French conglomerate Vivendi S.A. and a StudioCanal executive named Ron Halpern. Harry Shearer’s lawsuit accuses both parties of fraudulent accounting and illegitimate business practices:

“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. 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.”

Shearer accuses Vivendi of actively trying to hoard revenues and betray its contract with the Spinal Tap creators by means of underreported profits and dishonest accounting. The executive named in the lawsuit, Ron Halpern, is accused of being personally responsible for the overall exploitation.

How might this end?

It all depends on the evidence. Based on what we know about the financial success of the film and the suspiciously tiny amount of money Harry Shearer and the others received, it seems like there’s a good chance he can win this thing. It may come down to disputes over the original drafting of the production contract — if its language is shifty enough, Vivendi could potentially defend their actions by taking advantage of contractual loopholes.

Still, if Vivendi’s fraudulent underreporting of revenues can be proved, nothing else might matter. All in all, Shearer’s chances aren’t too bad. But whatever risks exists, he’s willing to take them because he’s had enough of the bullshit:

“This is a simple issue of artists’ rights. 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.”

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