Since the mid-90’s, there had been consistent rumors of a ‘Josie’ movie with the black diva group EnVogue covering the lead roles, but no info beyond that. Archie had just begun to license their “properties” to production companies. One such Archie-authorized project was the ‘Return To Riverdale’ TV-movie. The plot was centered around a reunion of all the major (and now-grown-up) characters many years after high school graduation, with Archie and his girl friends having survived ruined relationships, including divorce (?!).
By this time, a live-action ‘Sabrina The Teenage Witch’ premiered on the ABC-TV Friday night schedule. Featuring Melissa Joan Hart in the lead role, it became a sizable hit. However, the two people who created her, DeCarlo and Gladir, knew little about this recent project until the last minute and only got ONE check out of it (though they weren’t told what it was for). This was the norm for DeCarlo and other principal artists with Archie’s rather strange management technique. In fact, DeCarlo was informed about the original ‘Josie’ TV show ONE day BEFORE it premiered and was only occasionally credited as the creator. This creator credit confusion is supported by the many versions of this credit on many of the original TV show film prints; some prints claimed either DeCarlo, DeCarlo & Goldwater, Jr. or Goldwater Sr. & Jr. When the ‘Sabrina’ show was announced, Gladir’
s lawyer looked into this matter for both artists. Little did they know what they would find....
Within the last few years, movie studios have been
filming and releasing many films based on old nostalgic TV shows aplenty; ‘The Brady Bunch’ movies, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’, ‘The Flintstones’, ‘Mission Impossible’, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ and almost any Jay Ward cartoon are clear examples of this trend. Universal Studios was no different,
but they weren’t having much luck as their own offerings, ‘The Flintstones’ sequel, ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’ and ‘Dudley Do-Right’ went nowhere (though they did get lucky with ‘The Grinch’, grossing $300 million dollars). The studio
was looking for another animated property to exploit
(outside of the Jay Ward curse) and they found ‘Josie’. The studio made a deal with Archie for the movie rights and began the $25 million production in earnest in the Hollywood of the North - Vancouver, Canada.
Immediately assigned to write and direct were Harry
Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, the writing team behind ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, the ‘The Brady Bunch’ and ‘The Flintstone’ sequels with Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to handle the music. Originally, both Elfont and Kaplan turned down the project three times since they felt burnt out from a string of TV-to-movie projects (according to Kaplan, both had just
pitched a ‘Gilligans Island’ movie so bizarre that the
executives though they “were on crack”). Info was soon leaked to various film/fandom publications and web sites that their approach to ‘Josie’ would be a satirical look at the recording industry. The other leaks were of sub-plots dealing with a all-boy band (DuJour) and a record label executive who wants to take over the world by using Josie’s music to do the dirty deed.... and we finally learned Alan M.’s real name.
For casting, Rachel Leigh Cook (Josie), Tara Reid
(Melody) and Rosario Dawson (Valerie) as the Pussycats, Missi Pyle (Alexandra) and Gabriel Mann (Alan M.) rounded out the main cast. There was a minor controversy when it was discovered that the movie version didn’t have the ‘Cats wearing the trademark outfits, but, as the publicity photos
later revealed, the ears and the tails remained intact.
Rachel even dyed her hair slightly “punkish” red for the roll. Although the lead actresses spent three weeks in “music camp” to learn their instruments, Kay Hanley from the band Letters To Cleo was hired to sing Rachel /Josie’s parts. This maintained some of the old traditions from the TV series. However, Alexander, the group’s old manager, was replaced by the sneaky Wyatt Frame (played by Alan Cummings), who promptly kills off DuJour before the end of the film’s opening credits!
Also leaked out to the internet was the script... and didn’t look good, at least according to Smilin’ Jack Ruby from Fandom.com. His first complaint was the long list of proposed product placements that were scattered through it’s pages. “Yeah, a lot of brands typically show up in spots in films,” noted Ruby, “but it is rather rare that they’re written into the script to punch home that, yes, this is going to be a satire about big music companies using subliminal messages to get kids to buy products.” He also complained about the haphazard mix of bad jokes and influences from other current films like ‘Bring It On’, ‘Austin Powers’ and ‘American Pie’. Who was at fault?, Ruby wondered as he pointed to Kaplan and Elfont and to their movie resumes as evidence.
Ruby’s attacks on the script and filmmakers may have been sharp, but, in a cover story on ‘Josie’ in Entertainment Weekly, it was nothing more than an obvious point. “Normally, when the product placement department gets involved, filmmakers are like, ‘You’re corrupting my movie!’” laughs Elfont, “We were like Bring...It…On!!” Maybe Ms. Cook unintentionally drew the bottom line on the matter between the comic and the movie, “I was a fan of the comics. I don’t know about the movie. People are either going to love it or hate it.”
It was also about this time that Archie made a deal to produce a new version of the old ‘Josie’ animated series. The show would be a co-production between DIC Animation, Riverdale Production (Archies film and television arm) and MultiModal Media Group with the distribution and merchandising handed by DIC.
While the studio, cast, crew and fans were looking forward to the movie and it’s April 6th release (later pushed to April 11th), things weren’t rosy for the creator. Soon after the ‘Sabrina’ TV shows aired, DeCarlo began to have concerns over ‘Josie’ and what Archie management would do to her. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer. He began to hear rumors and, later, official news about the ‘Josie’ movie, not from Archie, but from the internet.
Figuring that he’d be left out again (as in the original animated series), DeCarlo hired a lawyer and, through him, began to talk to Archie. Dan’s lawyer notified Archie’s publishers and management of Dan’s status as the creator, his desire to be involved with the movie and “income” from this big project (“After all, I’m not getting any younger,” Dan said in the Comics Journal interview. “Freelance cartoonists don’t get pensions or retirement.”)
Unfortunately, these talks didn’t go well and DeCarlo ended up filing suit against Archie for breach of contract on royalties due to him through sources outside the comic books. The angle this suit was taking, according to Dan’s lawyer, was that, while he signed two agreements for the comic book right to Josie, he didn’t sign any merchandise rights (i.e., dolls, records, television and movie). Since “Josie’ wasn’t created especially for Archie, DeCarlo and his lawyer claimed that Dan had full ownership of these characters and that he only gave permission for Archie to use Josie in comic books. Furthermore, they argued that Archie was in breach of contract by using Josie’s image other than comic books and in a breach of the earlier oral agreement to pay
DeCarlo a 5% profit from all ‘Josie’ comic books.
In return, DeCarlo wanted recognition as creator and sole owner of ‘Josie’, ownership of exclusive licensing rights for media outside of comic books and accounting of 30 years’ worth of comic book royalties, as well as back-fees licensing owed to him. If he should win the case, DeCarlo would profit from the movie and the related merchandising.
Archie tried to settle the matter with an offer of $50,000 and 4% of marketing from the movie. DeCarlo commented that this was 1/5th of the figure that he and his lawyer had outlined in the official complaint. Of course, Archie was NOT pleased with this development; while Dan was “sneaking” in the offices to get his usual work assignments, he bumped into Michael Silberkleit, Archie Chairman and Co-Publisher, who handed Dan his walking papers. After 40 years of service, DeCarlo was not only fired, but Archie filed a countersuit against him for $6.5 million.
Suddenly, news of Dan’s pink slip hit the comic industry, mainstream newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and the industry’s weekly Comic Buyers Guide. Industry professional Paul Dini, producer of Batman, Superman and Tiny Toons animated series, remarked to Comic Book Resources about Dan’s influence on pop culture as well as his rights. “Not every child embraces superhero comics...but every kid has read an Archie comic at some point. …he (Dan DeCarlo) and (Disney comic artist) Carl Barks are the most widely seen comics artists.” On Dan’s situation, Dini adds, “Over the years, it’s been ‘shut-up and do your work’, and now it’s ‘shut-up and get out’. A man doesn’t need to hear that when he’s 80 years old and has created two of the franchises that kept them (Archie) alive.”
One of Comic Buyers Guide columnists, comic writer veteran Peter David, weighed in quite heavily. In the piece called ‘What Do The Writers Get’ in CBG #1386 (June 9, 2000), David concluded, “(Publishers) don’t respond to what’s right or what’s wrong, what’s fair or what’s just. They respond to two things, and two things only: convenience - and shame”. He then compares this fight with another by the neglected creators of Superman (Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster) and the current owners (Warner Bros.)
Archie finally (though belatedly) responded two issues later. In part: “The central issue in (this) lawsuit...is what transpired in the early ‘60’s, when the original Josie property was created. Archie Comics has always acknowledged that the original Josie property -including Josie herself - was created jointly by DeCarlo and Richard Goldwater in the early ‘60’s, when Goldwater, acting on behalf of Archie Comics, commissioned DeCarlo to work with him on the creation of a new set of teen-age characters on a work-for-hire basis.”
About the lawsuit itself: Archie states, “When DeCarlo brought his unfounded lawsuit asserting sole ownership of Josie and seeking complete unwarranted monetary relief, the owners of Archie Comics, a small, family-owned business, ultimately found that they and their employees could not stomach having Dan, in his words ‘sneaking’ around Archie Comics offices. Accordingly, Archie Comics owners informed DeCarlo that they could no longer make use of his services.” The response continued by inserting that DeCarlo was “handsomely compensated” for his involvement in Josie and added that he has been the most “highly compensated” individual at Archie. They ended with a claim that they treated DeCarlo and his family fairly and that the lawsuit was “a undeserved slap in the face”.
Peter David shot back in the next CBG issue with a thorough breakdown of Archie’ statement, pointing out the hypocrisies inbeded within the statement and the company’s history. Near the end, his emphasis got heavier, “Ultimately, as far as Archie is concerned, Dan DeCarlo isn’t a partner in imagination, a co-creator of some of the most popular and lucrative characters around. Nope, he’s simply a field hand, laboring in the fields. But wait, what’s this? Dan wants more than just being the best paid laborer? He not only wants money that’s commensurate with his contribution, but he wants to be thought of as (gasp!) something special? Well, look how quickly the esteem in which he’s held goes south. Archie is trying to say that it’s just about money. But it’s not. It’s about Dan DeCarlo overstepping his bounds, becoming a metaphorical uppity nigger and being slapped
down quick and slapped down hard because he dared to be dissatisfied.” David then tackles the “stomach” statement and its logic, “After all, Archie employees ‘couldn’t stomach’ having Dan around. So it’s equally logical for retailers and fans who can’t ‘stomach’ supporting Archie to treat the company with much consideration as Archie treated DeCarlo.”
As David predicted, industry professionals and fans were picking sides on this battle and Archie was feeling the pressure. Archie was planning to make a major presence at the biggest comics/media convention in the country, the 2000 San Diego Comic Con. However, when the news broke and the response began to build up, Archie, with
just four days before the start of the con, pulled out and canceled. DeCarlo was planning to attend, too. He was sponsored by another company and was greeted by his countless fans and supporters. A flyer was distributed protesting Archies’ actions offered addresses to send protests (including one to Wal-Mart as, according to the flyer (left), Archie makes major profits from those reprint digests near Wal-Mart’s registers). There was even an unconfirmed rumor circulating on the con floor that Frank Miller and many other prominent creators were planning a special project to help DeCarlo pay for his legal bills.
In January 2000, a federal court judge dismissed DeCarlo’s case (and Archies’ counter-suit) on a legal term known as ‘estoppel’; basically, by failing to act in this case after such a long time, DeCarlo was ceding his right to his creations. He also failed to act during the
three-year window allowed for legal action under the 1976 federal copyright law. DeCarlo’s lawyer filed the usual Motion of Appeal and a Summary Reversal of the judge’s decision.
Asked why he took so long to take legal action, DeCarlo told Phoenix New Times that he got incorrect advice from the Cartoonists Association. Back in 1970, after his blow-up with Goldwater over the TV show, Dan went to an attorney from the C. A. The attorney told him that
he had a very good case, but suing Archie would mean being “blackballed” by the rest of the industry, as well as Archie. It ain’t worth it, the attorney told him. Just keep your mouth shut and put it in writing next time.
Creator-owned comic legend Will Eisner (The Spirit) remarked after the dismissal: “It seems a shame that a guy works hard all his life on a property and makes a fortune for the company, only to get nothing in return, but the problem is the artists as well as the company. The artists are afraid to demand a deal.”
“I followed the wrong advice and if I hadn’t, I probably would have won this time,” DeCarlo says, “That’s the thing that killed my case. They say I should have acted earlier, and why did I wait so long? What I can’t understand is, there’s no statute of limitations on thievery and ownership, is there? Doesn’t seem fair.”
Archie commented on this latest development in a rare and very brief interview in Entertainment Weekly. “It’s news to me that they’re appealing,” remarked Silberkeit, “but all I can say is it’s a shame that after 40 years, a guy decides to sue us.” It is interesting to note that soon after the case was dismissed, Silberkeit offered DeCarlo a “peace deal” with one string attached, he would have to sign a waver stating that he never created Sabrina and Cheryl Blossom. DeCarlo refused.