Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Zombie Blood

So John Landis, the director of the most famoustest music video ever, is suing Michael Jackson for a portion of the profits from 'Thriller.' The shocker is that the contract actually says that Landis is entitled to 50% of the profits.

I saw this over on VideoStatic yesterday. The story is big news, especially since Jackson is selling the rights to 'Thriller' off to a company that will try and turn the video into a Broadway musical.

I think the point is that only now, with a big check (possibly) coming in from a theater producer – does it make sense for Landis to launch this suit. There have been a few times when directors saw hope that they might get a piece of the music video ‘profits,’ like when iTunes starting to sell videos. Remember way back when?

The problem is that there are never or almost never profits from music videos – since MVs are loss leaders for other revenue streams and MVs don’t make any money themselves.

'Thriller' is obviously the (possible) super mega-exception to this – and probably has generated some money. If 'Thriller' (the video) did make money, then it is probably the ONLY music video to ever do so. Sure videos help (helped?) CDs and cassettes (does anybody remember laughter) get sold – but that is, in and of itself, NOT making money with the video, that is promotion. Landis seems to be claiming that the video has made $2mil so he should get half of that. Who knows how much it has really made, since labels and entertainment contracts are notoriously good at hiding the back-end money from the creative types.

The other thing to remember is that Thriller was made in 1983, just two years into the existence of MTV. Back then there was no ‘standard’ contract for music videos – it was all new territory. I'm sure this contributed to the label/MJ letting Landis have a juicy 50 points of anything, even the imaginary "profits".

The contract (linked to on VS) didn’t seem set any precedents and it doesn't seem like any other directors have had the clout to get a contract like the one Landis did. In 1983 Landis was a huge, huge director. His 'American Werewolf in London' was a mega-hit and was the obvious inspiration for MJ to wanna do the 'Thriller' video (and maybe even the song) in the first place. Sadly, the Landis deal was not a precedent for future MV directors.

Other thoughts from reading the contract:
  1. The budget for ‘Thriller’ seemed to be $513,769. Obviously they went way, way over that. So the ‘profits’ might have been gobbled up right there.
  2. Going in, they planned on a 'making of documentary' about the video - something that was way ahead of its time.
  3. It seems that Rick Baker, who did the make-up FX for 'Thriller' and 'American Werewolf', might be in line for a percentage of the back-end as well, maybe out of Landis’s half.
  4. This is a good place to mention Indian Thriller.

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If you read through the complaint (and I dont speak legalese) it sounds like he HAD been getting his 50% cut, and that he is suing because the checks stopped coming 4 years ago. see pg 6. items 18 and 19
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