View profile

A Year Later, Disney Must Pay (Still)

Comics, FYI
A Year Later, Disney Must Pay (Still)
By Graeme McMillan • Issue #34 • View online
The campaign to get Marvel’s parent company to pay creators continues.

Those with good memories might remember that, in November 2020, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America went public with a plea for the Walt Disney Company to pay royalties to Alan Dean Foster for his work on novelizations and original work in the Alien and Star Wars franchises. 
When it emerged that Foster was far from the only creator to be owed money by Disney and others publishing Disney-owned properties, the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force was announced in April 2021; formed by the SFWA in collaboration with the Authors Guild, Horror Writers Association, National Writers Union, Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and other organizations, and featuring members including Neil Gaiman, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Chuck Wendig, the Task Force identified five key areas it hoped to address:
  • Honor contracts now held by Disney and its subsidiaries.
  • Provide royalty payments and statements to all affected authors.
  • Update their licensing page with an FAQ for writers about how to handle missing royalties.
  • Create a clear, easy-to-find contact person or point for affected authors.
  • Cooperate with author organizations that are providing support to authors and agents.
The immediate aftermath of the Task Force’s announcement was a lot of bad publicity for Disney, and a few small pieces of good news*, including the May 2021 announcement that BOOM! Studios had signed on to efforts to ensure that creators were receiving what they were owed. That’s a big deal, for two reasons. Firstly, Boom! is part-owned by Disney, which bought Fox – a company that owned a “significant minority stake” in the publisher – in 2019; secondly, Boom! was one of the companies the Task Force was explicitly addressing in the first place, with royalties for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reprints being one of the initial issues being raised. 
A year after the Task Force’s formation, however, things haven’t gotten significantly better for the majority of affected creators.
In an open letter sent Thursday, the Joint Task Force addressed Disney directly: “You’ve paid some authors what you owed them. But there are other creators that you don’t want to talk about. And, because you did not take our advice, new creators are coming forward who are owed money, too,” the letter reads, in part. “You still refuse to recognize your obligations to lesser known authors who wrote media tie-in works for Marvel, for Star Wars, for Aliens, for Predator, for Buffy: TVS and more, universes that you’ve bought the rights to, along with the obligations to those creators. You’ve re-published their works but have failed to do even the bare necessities of contract and talent management. You’ve failed to pay these writers royalties they’re legally owed, and have not given them the courtesy of royalty statements and reprint notices.”
A recurring element of the story when I first reported on it for THR last year was the idea that royalty payments were being missed, in part, because of corporate mergers and buyouts resulting in confusion over what was actually owed, and to whom. That was certainly something I heard from affected creators — at least one of whom had been told directly by Disney that their original contract was with a company Disney had since purchased, and that “royalties don’t transfer” between publishers — with people inside Disney suggesting that the solution could be as simple as going through boxes of paperwork from other companies to ensure every obligation was being met.
A Disney rep told me at the time that the company was “carefully reviewing whether any royalty payments may have been missed as a result of acquisition integration and will take appropriate remedial steps if that is the case.” It’s worth bearing in mind that Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, and Lucasfilm in 2012; for there to be unresolved payments relating to these buyouts would mean that Disney had failed to tackle the problem for at least a decade. (The Fox buyout was far more recent; it happened in 2019.) 
Following Thursday’s open letter, however, I spoke to a comic creator affected by Disney’s refusal to pay royalties. The creator, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, had written for Marvel on a property that Disney owned outright before any work began, meaning that “acquisition integration” was not a factor in their experience, and yet they’re still owed royalties going back years by this point.
“When Marvel decides to make incentive payments, there’s a loose schedule included in their incentive plan about when you should expect the payment,” the creator explained. “I didn’t realize that there was anything overdue until I happened to be reading through my old contracts, a number of months after the #Disney Must Pay campaign launched. Then I gradually realized that there had been events that would’ve triggered royalty payments, and that I hadn’t received anything.”
The creator did the obvious thing, and contacted Marvel to find out what the hold up was: “I contacted Marvel, and got a same-day response asking me to sign up for the Disney accounting system. I did so, cheerfully assuming this meant they were going to pay me. They didn’t.” That initial same-day response from Marvel was an anomaly; the company hasn’t responded to subsequent communication from the creator on the matter.
Things get interesting when it comes to the details of how Marvel’s royalties are supposed to work. Traditionally, royalties are calculated based on how many copies of a comic, book, or whatever the product happens to be, are purchased — which is how Marvel works in terms of single issues and digital releases, in theory. That may not be the case when it comes to collected print editions, according to the creator I spoke to.
“For paperback and hardcover collections, the incentive payment system is based on the number of collections printed, not sold,” the creator told me**. “So when Marvel prints a new edition of a collection, and they decide to actually pay the creators involved, the check is supposed to get cut fairly soon after the collection hits stores. And there’s generally just one check for each new edition of a collection; not multiple checks rolling in as it sells over the course of years.”
You might have noticed the creator’s use of “they decide to actually pay the creators” above. That’s not sour grapes or snark talking, however; Marvel contractually has no actual obligation to pay royalties.
Along with the work-for-hire contract presented to the creator I spoke with, Marvel included a copy of its Talent Incentive Plan, to help them understand how payments would be issued moving forward. “The incentive plan was pretty comprehensive,” they said. “It broke down what I might get for printed single issue sales, printed collections, and digital issues and collections. I say ‘what I might get’ because, after it broke down all these payment schedules, the incentive plan went on to state that the plan was in fact optional — and 100% at Marvel’s discretion. The plan explained that Marvel was the sole arbiter of who gets incentive payment money, and that all such payments are voluntary on their part. It also stated that Marvel can change the incentive plan at any time.”
I asked the creator if they’d considered taking legal action against Marvel to recover what they’re owed, only to be told that such a course of action would likely require a great deal of effort for what is likely to be little reward. “The amount of money involved is honestly pretty low. Like, small-claims-court-low,” they said. “It’s hard to justify even looking for an attorney who’d be willing to get involved. Let alone going through the complicated process of actually suing Disney.” 
The mention of a small amount of money leads into perhaps the most obvious question of all: with Marvel not communicating with them at all over the issue, did the creator have any idea of just how much money Marvel owed them in royalties by this point? The answer was, bluntly, no: “There’s the incentive payment for the collections that have been printed since I got my last royalty check years ago. And there’s the question of digital sales. The comics I worked on are still available for purchase on comiXology,” they told me. “I’ve never received a statement saying how many have sold, let alone received money for them. So I really have no idea how much I’d be making if they actually chose to make payments.”
More about the #DisneyMustPay Joint Task Force can be found on their website, including a form for creators who feel that they have been impacted by Disney’s lack of payment. Consider this a permanently ongoing story, unfortunately…
* Notably, Foster received at least a portion of money owed for his work.
** Suddenly, Marvel’s infamous tendency not to overprint collected editions makes a little more sense, if this is true. I reached out to Marvel for confirmation that this was still the policy, but haven’t received any response.
As I was finishing this newsletter up, I saw news that Neal Adams passed away on Thursday, aged 80. Even beyond his amazing body of work as an artist (and occasional writer), he’s an important figure in comics history because of the efforts he made to get creators recognized and fairly compensated, including pushing DC into offering an ongoing credit and pension to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1970s. The industry is better off for his efforts in a lot of ways, and he’ll be missed.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Graeme McMillan

A newsletter about comics, the comic industry, and comic book culture.

In order to unsubscribe, click here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
Powered by Revue