Actor Harry Shearer Sues Over ''Spinal Tap'' Royalties


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Actor Harry Shearer Sues Over 'Spinal Tap' Royalties


Comedian and actor Harry Shearer said in a lawsuit filed Monday that he's been bilked for years out of profits generated by "This Is Spinal Tap," the classic comedy film he starred in and helped create. He's seeking damages that go way beyond 11.

Mr. Shearer, suing through his production company, is seeking $125 million in compensatory and punitive damages from Vivendi SA, the French conglomerate that controls the film's rights, and its StudioCanal subsidiary. The suit was filed in federal court in Los Angeles.

The suit alleges Vivendi and its subsidiaries, through manipulative accounting and negligent control of its "Spinal Tap" copyrights, deprived Mr. Shearer of millions of dollars generated by the movie's long afterlife. He is also seeking control of the trademarks to the band name Spinal Tap and Derek Smalls, the character he portrayed.

The concert mockumentary about an over-the-hill metal band was well received when it was released in 1984, and it has since enjoyed a steady stream of revenue that's relatively rare in Hollywood. Video and television deals have followed, along with merchandise celebrating the movie's catchphrases, including fictional guitarist Nigel Tufnel's explanation that the dials on an extra-loud amplifier "go to 11," rather than the usual 10.

Mr. Shearer, who would go on from "Spinal Tap" to a comedy career that includes voicing 23 characters on "The Simpsons," says in the suit that, despite the movie's cult status, he and the movie's co-creators received $81 in merchandising income and $98 in sales for songs featured in the movie like "Sex Farm" and "Stonehenge" between 1984 and 2006. No financial statements were provided for the last two years, the suit alleges.

Suits like Mr. Shearer's occasionally appear in Hollywood, where disputes over studio accounting are commonplace. It's rare to see a suit related to a movie like "Spinal Tap," which is selling merchandise and generating deals more than 30 years after its release.

"Spinal Tap" had a modest budget of $2.25 million, and was inspired by a fictional band created by Mr. Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean. The three men have continued to work together in the years since, most notably for Mr. Guest's other mockumentaries like "A Mighty Wind." Messrs. Guest and McKean are cited as co-creators of the act but are not named as plaintiffs in the suit.

"This Is Spinal Tap" made $4.5 million during its initial theatrical release. The rights to the film then changed hands several times before landing with Vivendi. Mr. Shearer's suit alleges that his original distribution agreement included profit-participation deals on sales related to the movie.

Vivendi, the suit alleges, has failed to collect potential royalties on merchandise sales by abandoning "Spinal Tap" trademarks and forfeited potential money by not going after trademark breaches (the suit cites a brewing company that successfully filed for a "Spinal Tap"-inspired beer).

Mr. Shearer is hoping to tap his movie's massive fan base for support in the suit. In a video posted to his Twitter account on Tuesday, he ran through the movie's distribution over the decades—from theaters to home video.

"And yet, for most of that time, according to Vivendi, it hasn't been profitable," he said.

Mr. Shearer said the suit was part of a larger effort needed to get artists their share. "Going up against a major multinational is not nearly as enjoyable as playing too loud in Carnegie Hall," he said, referring to a gig on the fictional band's 2001 reunion tour.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com


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