October 2, 2005
"This Is Not Right" is how the story starts, and it's accurate. Apparently, Peter S. Beagle, who wrote the book The Last Unicorn, has seen almost none of the profits made from the animated movie based on his book. Beagle also wrote the screenply to Ralph Bakshi's animated Lord of the Rings, which ultimately led to the recent live-action movies also based on Tolkien's trilogy. For this he received a "consulting fee" of $5,000, compared to producer Saul Zaentz making almost $200,000,000 from his Tolkien rights.
Beagle and Connor Cochran, Beagle's business manager, are working to fight the Saul Zaentz company, who "refuse[s] to share any of [the almost two hundred million dollars] with Peter S. Beagle." The two are hoping that fans can help, either by spreading the word, becoming part of their letter-writing campaign, donating to their legal fund, or buying Beagle's books through Conlan Press.
As a working writer, I feel for Beagle. A lot. When I started Quark, the fanzine precursor to fps, I immersed myself in copyright law so that I could understand where the boundaries were between fairness, pragmatism and legality. Years later I joined PWAC, a Canadian organization for writers, and learned even more. Whenever I get the chance, I try to explain to people how this whole rights business works, and why it's important, for working artists, to always negotiate as if their work will spawn the next billion-dollar franchise.
I decided to follow up with Connor Cochran just to verify how much of this is a matter of legal wrongs vs. moral wrongs, and he provided quite a bit of detail. I'll let him speak here:
The original contract that Peter signed for the film rights and screenwriting of the Last Unicorn animated film specified a number of rights. Peter was guaranteed 5 percent of the gross revenues of all merchandising for the movie, which we know he hasn't ever gotten, and he was guaranteed 5 percent of the net profits from all distribution of the movie.
Now, in the twenty-three years since the film was first released in the United States, ownership of the film passed from its original producer, Britain's ITC Films, to Carlton Media International, which subsequently merged with Granada. Based on the nearly $11 million it made in the first three years of theatrical release, plus two decades of showings on cable and satellite TV, and various videotape and DVD releases, we know the film is in the black. It went into the black a long time ago, somewhere between 1986 and 1996 (when ITC deliberately and unilaterally stopped reporting, despite contractual requirements to do so). After all, the film only cost $3 million (or less) to make, so it isn't like it had much of a nut to make back in the first place. And for all Granada's claims that it hasn't, they have NO information to back this up, since they've admitted they have no income records at all for the film prior to the 1999 acquisition. They literally don't know if it made one dollar or a hundred million, and they don't want to know, because it is obvious that the real number wouldn't be to their advantage.
But whether it has recouped its production costs is possibly moot, legally.
When Carlton bought the ITC film library in 1999 -- as I now understand based on discussions with Granada execs and four different entertainment attorneys -- they did not carry forward any liabilities connected to the library movies, which means Granada can't claim any liabilities now. Which means that at minimum Peter is entitled to 5 percent of nearly every dollar the film has earned in the last six years, including the $250,000 Granada made selling the live-action rights. And at maximum he is entitled to all of that PLUS all that ITC never paid, plus interest and damages.
There is also the matter of merchandising. Granada has paid Peter a pittance for merchandising (less than $900) claiming they just haven't done much in that area. But they refuse to supply copies of contracts or verifying documentation to prove that $18,000 in merchandising income is all they have ever gotten since 1999. And of course they are liable for all the money Peter was never paid by ITC, during all those years they lied and claimed there was no advertising. And they are doing nothing to block all the illegal LAST UNICORN merchandise being sold on eBay and Amazon and other sites, an approach which threatens the security of the trademark itself.
Regarding Zaentz -- I admit that Beagle's contract with Zaentz was grossly one-sided thanks to the stupidity of Peter's then-agent. But I do have some hope, assuming we can get the matter to arbitration. Recent arbitration precedents indicate that the business practices involved could be considered so egregiously unfair that an arbitrator would rule in Beagle's favor, despite the contract. If so, they would base the award on contemporary standards of compensation -- which would be an added bonus for Beagle, since the current Writer's Guild contract covers work for animation. That wasn't the case in the 1970s.
If you want to learn more, you can contact Connor Cochran at (415) 641-3100, or e-mail him at connor at conlanpress dot com.