After making $98 in ‘This is Spinal Tap’ music royalties over 30 years, writer-star Harry Shearer sues studio

Harry Shearer in a scene from "This Is Spinal Tap."
(Embassy Pictures)

Harry Shearer once was part of a group that went to 11. Now he’s going to court.

The “This Is Spinal Tap” writer and costar has sued Vivendi and subsidiary StudioCanal, which hold the rights to the classic 1984 mockumentary, for $125 million.

Shearer claims that fuzzy accounting prevented him and the three other writer-stars (Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner and Michael McKean) from collecting a potential bundle of licensing and ancillary music revenue.

According to the lawsuit, filed this week in federal court in Los Angeles, the studio engaged in “cross-collaterizing” — essentially, packaging the movie with flops in its accounting practices. So while “Spinal Tap” has been an enduring road act and a licensing money-minter in the decades since the film came out, the studio has been able, the suits says, to claim little profits.


How little? Shearer says the principals have each been paid $81 for merchandise and $98 for music — in the entire 32 years since the film’s release. Shearer wants Vivendi, which acquired the rights initially held by distributor Embassy Pictures, to give him back-royalties.

He also is seeking rights to the film itself under a provision of the federal Copyright Act. The law allows for termination of such rights after 35 years in certain circumstances; Shearer alleges that due to the “fraudulent accounting” that provision could be triggered, which would give him rights to “Spinal Tap” as soon as 2019. Vivendi has yet to respond to the lawsuit.

Any reversion of rights would, among other things, allow Shearer to reprise his Derek Smalls character in public venues. He says he is currently not allowed to do so under Vivendi’s control of the property, and in fact that the conglomerate does not allow him to play, or derive revenue, from the character without seeking permission and paying a fee.

As such, Shearer and his collaborators rarely make appearances these days as Spinal Tap; when they do, it’s big news.

This is not the first time Shearer has waged battle over his value in Hollywood. Several years ago he threatened to walk away from “The Simpsons,” where he voices characters such as Mr. Burns and Principal Skinner, during contract negotiations with producers. The sides eventually reconciled.

“Spinal Tap,” which turbocharged the careers of many of its performers, including Shearer, remains a cultural force despite the licensing issues, making its way into everything from sports coverage to “Harry Potter.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT