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Arts and Entertainment

'Spinal Tap' Actor Says He Got Only $98 In Music Royalties

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Harry Shearer as Derek Smalls (left) with Christopher Guest as Nigel Tufnel at 2007's 'Live Earth London.' (Photo by Getty Images)
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This Is Spinal Tap is the bar against which all "mockumentaries" are measured against. Rob Reiner's comedy romp was not just hilarious, it also delivered scathing commentary on the arena-fication of rock music. Since its release in 1984, the movie has solidified a cult following. The film gets regular air-time on cable channels, and it's been referenced by everything from The Simpsons to Pokemon.

It may come as a shock to you, then, that Harry Shearer, who played bassist Derek "lukewarm water" Smalls, claims that the actors made about $81 in merchandising and $98 in music royalties. We're not just talking about a one-time missed payment, either. Shearer is saying that's how much they made total over the decades that This Is Spinal Tap has been in existence. It should be noted that Shearer, along with his fellow actors, wrote the songs for the movie.

Shearer filed a lawsuit in L.A. earlier this week against media group Vivendi and subsidiary StudioCanal, reports the L.A. Times. Vivendi and StudioCanal hold the rights to This Is Spinal Tap. Shearer is seeking $125 million in his lawsuit, as well as the rights to the film and the soundtrack.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the original agreement was that the actors would get 40 percent of net receipts. However, as Shearer claims, the studios used a couple of shady accounting strategies to stiff the actors out of the profits. One practice they allegedly used was something called "cross-collaterizing," which means that the studios had lumped This Is Spinal Tap with other movies that turned out to be flops (the practice is also sometimes referred to as "straight-lining"). Shearer also claims that Vivendi did some old-fashioned, dishonest accounting; he says they mismanaged the flow of payments going through their subsidiaries.

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It's not just cash that Shearer is going for—he also wants to claim the rights to This Is Spinal Tap. Shearer wants to use a provision of the federal Copyright Act that, under certain circumstances, can terminate the studio's claim over the rights after 35 years of ownership. Shearer says that, due to Vivendi's bad accounting work, this provision may be enacted. If the actor has his way, Vivendi may lose the rights to This Is Spinal Tap in 2019.

The suit also provides some nuggets of fun trivial for devotees of Spinal Tap. It states, for example, that the studios allowed the Spinal Tap trademark to be used for this beer that has an alcohol content of, you guess it, 11 percent.

Here's Smalls explaining his role in the band. What do you do when you're like the George Harrison of the band?