The Smurfs will return to the U.S. in a big way with the premiere of their namesake movie on July 29.
Early in the film, the small blue creatures are unwittingly siphoned through a magic portal, quickly transported from their peaceful village to the bustling streets of New York City.
But the famous blue figures that appear on the big screen have, in reality, taken a thoughtful path in their return to the States after three decades. As I learned while representing the entity that owns the Smurfs, this movie came with its fair share of unique circumstances.
Starting with me. As a Washington-based intellectual property lawyer for Hogan Lovells, I've represented computer companies, medical device firms, auto companies and designer fashion labels. I had never negotiated a movie. I have, on the other hand, worked for the Smurfs rights holders for nearly 30 years.
I know that above all else, the heirs to the Smurf rights want their characters to remain true to the image created in 1958 by their father, the late Belgian cartoonist, Pierre “Peyo” Culliford.
The rumblings of a Smurf movie began in 2002, when my clients began tossing around ways to bring their characters back to the U.S. The Hanna-Barbera Smurfs cartoon was wildly popular here in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and my old firm represented the Smurfs rights holders when Smurf merchandise was a hot commodity (think Smurf-Berry Crunch).
However, the cartoon ceased in the 1980s and the Smurf rights holders focused their efforts in Europe and Asia, where the Smurfs remained very popular. In the meantime, I, along with my firm, assumed sole representation of the Smurfs in the U.S.
Though I didn't know all the elements that went into negotiating a movie, I knew we had the ingredients for some potential stumbling blocks. My clients weren't willing to let money drive a deal and they weren't going to sell ownership of their property to the highest bidder. Nor were they lured by the glitter associated with Hollywood. They wanted to make a movie, but not at the expense of losing control of the Smurf image and legacy.
On the other hand, I knew that studios prefer owning the rights to the characters of their movies, and having complete control considering the expense/investment in making a major motion picture.
The combination would make for interesting negotiations.
Paramount Pictures was the first studio interested in working with us. I connected, through our office in Los Angeles, with Creative Artists Agency, who helped guide us on the ins-and-outs of movie-making. Together, we delved into years-long negotiations with Paramount over the details that would enable my clients to maintain the integrity of the Smurf characters, but provide Paramount the rights it needed to make the movie.
My legal partner, Celine Crowson, and I became experts in the study of what makes a Smurf a Smurf. We negotiated with the studio over what the characters wore and what they said.
First and foremost, Smurfs are three apples high and always remain clad in their trademark hat and pants. If a hat blows off during an action scene, so be it, as long as it goes right back on that blue head. Not just any blue, Smurf blue. Also, Smurfs are kind creatures, so they don't swear or dabble in anything seedy.
Those details amounted to a contract of paper six inches high. It was necessary, because we knew that once the deal was signed, the image of the Smurfs would be guided by the script, the animation technology and numerous other elements that were under studio control — elements that would bestow upon the characters a long-lasting image and their legacy for years to come.
The process strung out for three years. My clients were ready to pull the plug a dozen times. But the deal did finally come to fruition. I remember that moment when my BlackBerry buzzed at 2 a.m. with a long-awaited email from a copyright lawyer at Paramount.
But we couldn't exhale yet. We waited for production to start, but years went by and the Smurfs sat in the seemingly endless queue of movies-to-be. Under the terms of our contract, the studio had the option to give the rights back to my client or assign their rights to another studio after several years.
That's when Sony stepped into the picture. Luckily for us, someone at Sony was a huge Smurfs fan. Within a few days, Paramount transferred the deal to Sony, and Sony never looked back. The year was 2008. A Papa Smurf balloon made it into the Macy's Day Parade that Thanksgiving, and the rest is history.
It was a long journey indeed for the small blue creatures. But in the end, we are confident that the figures that emerge from that magic portal early in the film are those same characters that enthralled kids three decades ago.