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New Landis Suit: "Thriller" Can't Go to Broadway

Landis argues that he has 50 per cent ownership over the Thriller video. Without his agreement, there can be no show.

Last updated at 1:06pm PT, January 29, 2009.
John Landis, the veteran Hollywood director already embroiled in a lawsuit with Michael Jackson over the proceeds from the Thriller video they made together 25 years ago, filed a new complaint against the singer last night to stop him turning the iconic Thriller song and album into a Broadway musical.
The Wrap broke the news on the original suit, in which Landis alleged he was owed four or more years of his share of the profits from both the Thriller video and the hour-long making-of documentary that he co-wrote and directed. Now the legal temperature has risen several degrees higher in the wake of an announcement from Jackson and the New York theater producer James Nederlander that they want to put Thriller on Broadway.
In his latest filing with the Los Angeles Superior Court, Landis argues that he has at least 50 per cent ownership over the Thriller video and any dramatic rights deriving from it. Without his agreement, there can be no show.
"Jackson was obligated to obtain Landis' permission and authorization in order to exploit Landis' Dramatic Rights to create and exploit a musical theater production based on the Thriller Video and Documentary," the suit says. "Jackson has never obtained Landis' permission or authorization to license, exploit or transfer Landis' Dramatic Rights."
Put in plain language, Landis was initially put out that he and his production company hadn't been paid their due – especially since the Thriller album was reissued last year and the 14-minute video to the title track became a big hit on iTunes. The best guess was that he was owed somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million.
Now, though, he's fuming. According to his suit, the theatrical rights that Jackson is attempting to sign away to Nederlander represent more than $400,000 of his money.  The complaints asks the court to declare that neither Jackson nor Nederlander has the right to make any such deal. 
It is highly unusual for a suit of this kind to seek only a court declaration, as opposed to an actual injunction preventing the show from going ahead. Landis, however, has a long history with Jackson and bears him no ill will, according to his lawyer, Miles Feldman. 
"He doesn't wish any harm on Michael Jackson," Feldman said. "But this was one of Landis's big creative achievements, and he doesn't feel he should be shut out of it. We haven't sued to stop it, but if we have to, we will."
Monday's announcement that Thriller was headed to Broadway followed closely on the heels of a closed door weekend meeting at the Hotel Bel-Air, at which Jackson's representatives met to discuss the initial Landis suit. It appears they either did not recognize his claim, or did not understand it, or chose deliberately to antagonize him by cutting him out of the Broadway deal.
Landis's complaint argues that he owns at least 50 per cent of the "separated rights" to the Thriller video, including the dramatic rights, under the terms of the different Writers Guild agreements that have been in force since he and Jackson signed their original contract in September 1983.
The case may be complicated by the fact that the contract itself asserts that all subsidiary rights lie exclusively with Jackson and his company – now defunct – called Optimum Productions. The text of the contract states: "Producer and Director shall be deemed [Jackson]'s employees-for-hire and the Short and the Documentary shall be deemed a "work-made-for-hire", as said terms are defined in the copyright laws of the United States."
Feldman argued, however, that the WGA basic agreement superseded this provision in the contract – something that appears to be backed up by language in the contract itself. ("Notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in this agreement," it says in paragraph 10, "… this agreement shall be subject to the applicable terms of the DGA and WGA Basic Agrements with respect to the services of John Landis as director and co-writer...".)
The WGA agreement, in turn, states that if the stage rights to a work are not exploited within a few years (the exact number of years is open to interpretation but certainly a lot less than 26), then those rights revert automatically to the writers. Landis and Jackson shared writing credit on both the video and the documentary, although Landis is considering the argument that he in fact wrote it all himself and deserves more than 50 per cent of the rights.
The easiest outcome to the dispute would almost certainly be a conciliatory gesture from the Jackson camp and some kind of out-of-court settlement. James Nederlander indicated in a statement today that this would be his preference. "I'm confident that these past differences can be worked out," he said.

Landis's representatives have, however, made several friendly overtures to the Jackson camp already, only to be rebuffed or ignored.