The video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was an iconic moment in the history of film and music, with the King of Pop teaming up with the Director of such classic films as “Animal House”, “An American Werewolf In London” and “The Blues Brothers” to create what was for a long time the most expensive music video ever made, as well as being regularly voted the best ever in surveys carried out since its release. Landis also worked with Jackson on “Black Or White”, another of his most popular videos.
Times, however, have changed. Michael Jackson is reportedly on the verge of filing for bankruptcy whilst attempting to restart his once-glittering career and John Landis has never bettered his string of 1980s classics, including “Trading Places” and “Coming To America”.
The only place they are likely to meet up in the near future will be in a Los Angeles Court, after Landis issued proceedings against Jackson for breach of contract, claiming that he has not received his agreed share of 50% of the profits generated by the “Thriller” video for the past four years.
Landis’s claim states that “the Thriller video became a worldwide megahit and an iconic pop culture phenomenon that has continued to generate profits for defendants Optimum Prods and Michael Jackson, who have wrongfully refused to pay or account for such profits” and accuses Jackson of fraudulent, malicious and oppressive conduct.”
Thriller became a phenomenon on its release, but it’s fair to say that very few people could have predicted its success, even 25 years after it was first released. Not only that, but the entertainment industry has changed beyond all recognition and I doubt that Jackson or Landis could have anticipated the money which could be made through DVD releases, Internet Downloads or via any of the other new formats which have emerged since 1983.
What John Landis did right was to set out his rights and entitlements in a contract with Michael Jackson. Many creatives from that era did not do so and saw other people make huge amounts of money of out works to which they contributed but from which they receive very little financial benefit, such as Claire Torry, who provided vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”, but only recently began to receive significant royalties for her contribution.
Not only can you be paid for the work you do on a project, but there’s a good chance that, unless you have assigned your rights, you could be entitled to a share in the Intellectual Property Rights (such as copyright) arising from the final product.
The lesson has to be that, although you may never envisage and may never want to be involved with a dispute on any project, you should always be prepared for one and always set out the terms of your relationship in writing.