Buckaroo Banzai may be in trouble and this time it is not from the machinations of evil Lectroids from Planet Ten or the World Crime League, but from something far more vexing – rights issues.
In an interview, W. D. Richter, director of the 1984 cult classic The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eight Dimension, revealed that it is possible that the rights to the actual character of Buckaroo Banzai actually lie with screen writer Earl Mac Rauch. And that could impact the television version of the film that writer/director Kevin Smith is currently developing with MGM for Amazon Studios.
“Mac’s original contract is about the shortest I’ve ever seen in the motion picture business,” Richter states. “It’s about four pages long with a few lines going onto a fifth page. It’s for a draft and two sets of revisions based on an original idea by ‘The Writer’ which the contract calls ‘The Property.’ And [Mac] is hired to write and deliver a first draft screenplay and two sets of changes, based on ‘The Property.’”
In this particular case, “The Property” is a 57-page treatment by Rauch for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, titled Lepers From Saturn. The treatment was just one part of a presentation that Richter and Rauch made to David Begelman, head of MGM at the time. Much of the other material in the presentation, which they titled “A Buckaroo Banzai Sampler,” consisted of half-completed drafts of other Banzai adventures Rauch had started in on while developing the overall idea and character. When MGM fired Begelman, he formed Sherwood Productions and was allowed to take the script that Rauch had written for MGM with him as one of his new production shingle’s first projects.
Richter elaborates, “Rereading Mac’s MGM agreement recently when the new series was announced to see if Mac had any royalties built in, it occurred to my non-legal eye that the document does not acquire ‘The Property,’ it simply hires Mac to write a screenplay based on it. It’s important to stress that the MGM-drafted Agreement specifically defined Mac’s 57-page treatment as ‘the Property’ and that the Agreement never “acquired” it in any of its language because it only engaged Mac to write a screenplay ‘based upon’ his treatment. In fact, Begelman made it clear to us that he didn’t want to get involved in the larger world of Buckaroo Banzai because, as he said, ‘I don’t know what it is’.”
So Richter says that the crux of his and Mac Rauch’s argument hangs on the way that the contract specifically defines Rauch’s pre-written treatment and the screenplay that Begelman hired him to write as two different things.
“It’s perfectly obvious,” Richter says, “that the Agreement’s simple, blunt language acknowledges the existence of two entirely separate intellectual properties – one they called ‘The Property’ and one they called ‘The Work.’ Crucially, ’The Work’ is a technical term in the Writers Guild Basic Agreement with all the studios, is defined as only “what the writer is engaged to write”, and a screenplay is all that Mac was engaged to write in the MGM contract. David Begelman basically commissioned a screenplay based on a piece of literary material that MGM didn’t own and then David Begelman went off and made and released a movie based on it. It’s the equivalent of releasing a movie based on a Stephen King book but forgetting to buy the book from Stephen. And a highly regarded property lawyer agrees with us.”
“We’ve asserted all of this to MGM, and they’ve reflexively disagreed,” Richter says. “And I understand that. They’re not going to say ‘Oh yeah, right! Sorry.’ I’ve gone through all my records and archival material and we’ve demonstrated that Begelman was clearly not just pitched one episode as if it were a stand-alone movie. He was presented with ‘The Buckaroo Banzai Sampler.’ He was told it was a whole world, and shown written examples prior to his commissioning the screenplay from Mac.”
Richter goes on to explain that the contract in question does not contain what should be a standard clause called ‘Conditions Precedent.’ Among the many conditions within that standard paragraph is the requirement that the studio has obtained any underlying rights to the property before the screenwriter can get to work.
“I think it was complacency,” posits Richter. “They just thought ‘Well, it’s the same guy.’ But they went to the trouble of calling it ‘The Property’ and only did it once and never acquired ‘The Property’ in the whole five page document. This could have catastrophic implications for them if we’re right.”
This is not the first time that rights issues have been a hindrance to continuing the Buckaroo Banzai franchise.
“The history of the chain of title on Buckaroo is just deranged,” Richter admits. When Begelman dissolved Sherwood Productions, he sold off much of its holdings to pay off debts. The property bounced around for a while from French bank Credit Lyonnais to Polygram Records and then ultimately back to MGM. But along the way, there are some gaps in the history of the film’s rights. In 2009, Warner Brothers Animation was interested in doing a cartoon version of Buckaroo Banzai, but was warned off by Warners’ legal department who felt that a clear chain of title could not be established.
“They knew that the motion picture rights to The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension had journeyed around the universe,” Richter says. “Mac just found some emails that Warners Animation had sent to us calling out four or five places where the title chain just dropped out. For example, Warner’s lawyers discovered that on a specific date the title was definitely in the hands of Company A, yet three years later it somehow ‘belonged’ to Company G. But the copyright search couldn’t discover how the rights had ever made their way from A to G or was it by then to H or even K. Were there five intervening companies? One? What’s missing? Where are all these transfer-of-rights documents? Warner Brothers couldn’t find them, and I suspect MGM can’t either because as David Begelman once bragged to me about how he was actually financing Buckaroo, ‘I operate on a need-to-know basis, and you don’t need to know.’”
Richter says, “With this messed up chain of title, if you can’t trace it from its beginnings all the way back to MGM, you have to look back and see who’s the last person who really owned everything. It’s Earl Mac Rauch when he walked into that room, laid that universe on Begelman’s desk and Begelman chose to only develop one episode of it and failed to buy either the treatment or any rights to the whole saga.”
An email sent to Smith’s ViewAskew production company for comment on Friday was not answered.