The Simpsons star sues Vivendi for $173 million over Spinal Tap profits

Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer) of Spinal Tap performs during the Live Earth concert at Wembley Stadium in London.
Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer) of Spinal Tap performs during the Live Earth concert at Wembley Stadium in London.PHOTO: REUTERS

Wilmington (Bloomberg) - Comedian Harry Shearer has a message for the company that owns the rights to the 1984 cult comedy film This Is Spinal Tap. "Gimme some money. Gimme some money."

Shearer, whose career has included providing voices for more than 20 characters on the hit television show The Simpsons, accused Vivendi of improperly withholding millions in profits from the spoof movie from its creators and cast members.

The 72-year-old contends that Vivendi executives should pay US$125 million (S$173 million) in damages tied to profits generated by the 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 on Monday (Oct 17) in federal court in Los Angeles.

A Vivendi spokesman in Paris declined to comment on the suit on 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 US$4.5 million in American theatres, 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 a satirical resemblance to Lemmy Kilmister, the mutton-chopped guitarist of the real metal band Motorhead who died last year.

Despite its meagre take at the box office, the film became a cult hit, generating three decades of residual fees from DVDs, television reruns and a 2000 re-release that is now at issue in the lawsuit.

Shearer contends that 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.

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

Vivendi and its agents "have engaged in anti-competitive business practices by manipulating accounting between Vivendi film and music subsidiaries and 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.