Last year, Harry Shearer filed a $125 million lawsuit against Vivendi, the French movie distributor that owns the rights to 1984’s This Is Spinal Tap, for paying Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Rob Reiner less than $200 in revenue from the film over a 30-year period. Guest, McKean, and Reiner joined the lawsuit in March, and together they’re demanding $400 million in damages due to what Shearer calls “Hollywood accounting,” or the common practice of studios masking profits – particularly from things like merchandising, music, and home video – from creators and writers.
Shearer is not new to bringing his demands for fair pay into the public realm – see his Simpsons contract negotiations in 2015 – so it makes sense, then, that he’s become the official spokesman for the Spinal Tap lawsuit as seen in his Rolling Stone op-ed earlier this month as well as a great in-depth piece at Bloomberg Businessweek last week:
“There is almost an overwhelming asymmetry that faces the creative artist,” he says. “You get told over and over again, ‘Well, it’s just a little cult picture, it doesn’t mean anything.’ And you internalize it. We love what we do, and they know it. And that is a rusty bayonet that we’ve handed them to insert in our innards whenever they want.”
The Bloomberg piece is particularly helpful if you’re unfamiliar with the deceptive Hollywood business practices Shearer is fighting against, and it also serves as a wise warning to newer performers who might approach a movie deal as desperately as he and his Spinal Tap costars did when they were younger:
Why would anyone agree to a contract that allowed for so much secrecy, so much take-our-word-for-it? What Shearer remembers from the Spinal Tap deal is the feeling of powerlessness and desperation, and he says the studios were more than happy to take advantage of this. “We were basically in the position of beggars,” he says. “We’d been turned down by every studio in town. We wanted to make this movie. And what I’ve learned in the intervening years is that perhaps it’s best not to advertise that fact to people you’re going into business with.”
The article also notes that most talent is “rightly concerned about being blacklisted or blackballed” for litigating big Hollywood studios, and Shearer has heard from at least a few other creatives who are rooting for him:
“The thing that you gain if you’re very, very, very, very—that’s four verys—lucky in this business is some degree of leverage,” Shearer says. “I’ve gotten several communications from people who say, ‘Man, I’ve been in the same spot. I wish I could have been able to do what you guys are doing.’ ‘Get the bastards’ is sort of the consensus summation of what they say.”
Read the rest over at Bloomberg Businessweek.