Film Studio Claims ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ Made Only $179 in 22 Years
Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer has revealed that the corporation that holds the rights to This Is Spinal Tap claimed it made only $179 in profit-sharing payments over 22 years. Shearer, who played bassist Derek Smalls in the groundbreaking 1984 movie, has provided more details behind the $400 million lawsuit launched against the Vivendi company by him and his colleagues Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Rob Reiner.
The quartet began work in 1982 with a budget of $2 million, four years after they’d developed the concept and two years after they’d made a show reel. It flopped, until it became a cult hit on VHS a few years later. In the following years, the rights were sold multiple times, but holders say it barely made a profit over the course of its existence.
Shearer told Bloomberg that he began investigating the situation in 2013: “We were approaching the 20th anniversary, and this low-burning light bulb begins to go off. ‘Hey, wait a minute – what’s going on here?’” He asked Vivendi for its full financial interactions with the movie. The resulting statements claimed that, up until 2006, the four artists were owed $81 in merchandise income and $98 in soundtrack income.
Shearer launched legal action alone at first, asking for $125 million and accusing Vivendi of having “fraudulently under-reported the revenues owed.” But the stakes rose when Guest, McKean and Reiner added their names to the lawsuit earlier this year and demanded $400 million.
Their research suggested that, in 2004, Vivendi received $1.6 million for VHS and DVD revenue, but didn’t report it until it was found in the 2013 paperwork. It’s also alleged that This Is Spinal Tap’s profitable status was hidden when it was bundled into a sale with loss-making titles. In addition, the creators claim there’s a conflict of interest because Vivendi owns Universal Music Group, which holds the movie’s soundtrack rights. They also flagged that expenses of $500,000 for freight and direct costs were added to the accounts, along with $2.5 million in marketing and promotion expenses – all incurred years after the film had become a catalog product.
Shearer, Guest, McKean and Reiner also filed notices to terminate and reclaim the copyright to the Spinal Tap name. But the corporation rejected the approach, saying that the name had been created for use as a work for hire, and therefore the creators were not entitled to the rights. Vivendi declined to comment to Bloomberg.
Noting what he called a “hypocritical” position of a firm stating that a product had never turned a profit, while fighting to retain the associated rights, Shearer said, “You get told over and over again, ‘Well, it’s just a little cult picture. It doesn’t mean anything.' We love what we do and they know it. That’s a rusty bayonet that we’ve handed them, to insert in our innards whenever they want.”
Explaining why they’d originally signed a deal that may have contained elements they didn’t like, Shearer said, “We were basically in the position of beggars. We’d been turned down by every studio in town. We wanted to make this movie – and what I’ve learned is that perhaps it’s best not to advertise that fact to people you’re going into business with. The thing we joke about is called the Spinal Tap curse, where we have to go through everything we’ve made fun of.”
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