Fight Over ‘Spinal Tap’ Profits Dialed Up to 11

  • Vivendi sued by comedian over withheld mockumentary’s profits
  • ‘This is Spinal Tap’ became classic spoof of heavy metal band

Harry Shearer, left, and Michael McKean perform as Spinal Tap in London, on July 7, 2007.

Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Comedian Harry Shearer has a message for the company that owns the rights to “This is Spinal Tap."

Gimme some money. Gimme some money.”

Harry Shearer

Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

Shearer, a U.S. comedian and co-creator of “Spinal Tap,” accused Vivendi SA of improperly withholding millions in profits from the spoof movie from its creators and cast members.

The 72-year-old Shearer, whose career has included providing voices for more than 20 characters on the hit TV show “The Simpsons,” contends Vivendi executives should pay $125 million in damages tied to profits generated by the Spinal Tap movie, a 1984 mockumentary about a fictitious heavy metal band.

Vivendi “failed to account honestly for the income actually received from” the movie, which has become a cult classic, Shearer said in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Los Angeles.


‘Almost Constantly’

“The film is on view almost constantly,” Shearer said in a video posted to his Twitter account. “It was theatrically released twice, and it has had lives on VHS, Beta, DVD, Blu-ray, Laser Disc, and cable TV, and yet for most of that time, according to Vivendi, it has not been profitable.”

“Filing a claim like this is neither fun nor easy going up against a major multinational. It is not nearly as enjoyable as playing too loud in Carnegie Hall,” he said. The Spinal Tap characters played songs from the movie at the famous New York venue in 2001.

A Vivendi spokesman in Paris declined to comment on the suit Tuesday. Vivendi is the parent company of Universal Music and Studio Canal, a French company listed as the legal owner of all rights to the film.

“This Is Spinal Tap” grossed $4.5 million in U.S. theaters, according to Box Office Mojo. The film, starring Rob Reiner, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, was directed by Reiner in so-called mockumentary style, following the fictional band through its concert tour.

Shearer, the movie’s co-author, portrayed band bassist Derek Smalls, who bears satirical resemblance to Lemmy Kilmister, the mutton-chopped bass guitarist for the real metal band Motorhead who died last year.

‘Sex Farm’

Despite its meager take at the box office, the film grew in popularity, generating three decades of residual fees. Shearer contends Vivendi has shortchanged the movie’s writers, cast and crew on profits generated from the film itself, along with merchandising and other movie spin offs. In 2013, he commissioned a study of the accounting statements and revenue streams associated with the movie and found that Vivendi and its agents had "willfully concealed and manipulated years of accountings to retain monies due and owing to plaintiff,” according to the complaint.

Vivendi reported soundtrack sales from 1989 to 2006 produced a total income of $98, Shearer claims. The company also listed the movie creators’ share of worldwide merchandising income from 1984 to 2006 as $81, according to the court filing.

Vivendi and its agents “have engaged in fraud to deprive the Spinal Tap creators of a fair return for their work,” Shearer’s company, Century of Progress Productions, said in the complaint. “‘This is Spinal Tap’ and its music, including such songs as ‘Sex Farm’ and ‘Stonehenge,’ have remained popular for more than 30 years, and have earned considerable sums” for Vivendi.

The case is Century of Progress Productions v. Vivendi SA, CA 16-7733, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California (Los Angeles).

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