MGM Sues 'Buckaroo Banzai' Writer and Director Over Right to Make New TV Series

Buckaroo Banzai - John Lithgow - Still - Photofest - H - 2016

More than three decades after the cult sci-fi classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was released in theaters, MGM wishes to produce a new television series of the characters with Kevin Smith at the helm and in conjunction with Amazon Studios. But first, MGM is taking a trip to the courtroom to sort out rights.

MGM has filed a complaint in California federal court against Earl Mac Rauch, who wrote the 1984 film about a neurosurgeon/rock star who saves Earth from malevolent aliens, and Walter Richter, who directed the picture that stars Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd.

Rauch and Richter "have now asserted in multiple letters to Plaintiffs that they, not Plaintiffs, supposedly own the exclusive right to produce and distribute a Buckaroo Banzai television series," states MGM's lawsuit. "There is now a substantial controversy between the parties with great immediacy. MGM seeks to develop its new television series without Defendants’ interference. Accordingly, Plaintiffs bring this action to seek a declaration of the rights and legal relations of the parties with regard to Buckaroo Banzai."

The 1984 film left off with a tease in the form of a message where audiences were told, "Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai — Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League."

The sequel never came, and Richter has spoken up in the years that followed of how "the paper trail for the rights is almost impossible to follow," with properties being passed around in corporate transactions and a proposed Warner Bros. animated version being squashed because of the clouded title.

Through the lawsuit, MGM says Rauch and Richter have been aware since at least 2008 that it was pursuing a television series based on Buckaroo Banzai, and in 2011, the writer and director asserted ownership rights. MGM repudiated the claim, and it would hardly be the last time the two sides would trade letters on this topic.

This past July, defendants' agent Mark Lichtman would again claim ownership, not only in letters to MGM that informed the studio that his clients "are moving forward with their projects regarding Buckaroo Banzai," but also to Amazon Studios and Smith's agents at WME. In response, MGM demanded that Rauch and Richter cease and desist from interference.

Then in August, defendants' attorney Kenneth Keller delivered a five-page letter to MGM's counsel, Robert Rotstein at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp.

"We are not claiming the limited rights which MGM might own with respect to the single motion picture, Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, although as is discussed below, there are certainly serious questions even as to the chain of title with respect to that picture and MGM's rights associated with it," wrote Keller. "What my clients own are the overall rights to the world of Buckaroo Banzai, and all of the characters, themes and ideas associated with that world."

Keller went on to explain that in 1981, MGM entered into an agreement with Rauch's loan-out company for a single episode, but nearly a decade earlier, the script writer had created characters, successfully pitched Richter and had sketched out five stories — "The Strange Case of Mister Cigars: A Buckaroo Bandy Mystery"; "Lepers From Saturn — A Buckaroo Banzai Adventure"; "A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller — 'Find the Jet Cart,' Said the President"; "Shields Against the Devil — A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller"; and "Forbidden Valley."

It's further reported in the letter that in 1981, Richter and others met with an MGM executive and pitched him the entirety of Rauch's Buckaroo Banzai adventures, leaving a copy of "A Buckaroo Banzai Sampler."

"Critically ... MGM passed on the opportunity to option or obtain any rights in Mr. Rauch's larger property, including the other four episodes which he had written to the point or any other rights to the world of BUCKAROO BANZAI," continued Keller's letter. "The Agreement itself specifically defines what MGM was contracting to acquire — a screenplay (based on a single episode of Buckaroo Banzai) and two revisions — and the rights associated with that screenplay."

Naturally, in MGM's lawsuit filed by Rotstein, the studio takes a different view.

MGM contends that the services of Rauch and Richter were provided on a "work-made-for-hire" basis," or alternatively, that it was assigned "all exclusive rights under copyright to the screenplay and motion picture, and the characters, plots, themes, dialogue, mood, settings, pace, sequence of events, and other protected elements therein."

The lawsuit adds that MGM and its predecessors had creative control over the Buckaroo Banzai project and contributed copyrightable elements.

MGM also is asserting that Richter violated a publicity provision of his contract by talking to one film website about MGM's lack of rights to the property. Additionally, Richter and Rauch are said to be in breach of this provision via statements made on Facebook. 

At the moment, though, MGM is merely seeking declarations from the court that Rauch and Richter can't prevent a Buckaroo Banzai television series, that it owns the copyrights, that Rauch has signed away rights to literary materials submitted in connection with Buckaroo Banzai and that defendants are barred by statute of limitations and estopped from asserting any ownership rights.

Read the full complaint here.