One of the holiday season’s enduring franchises is set for a legal showdown. "A Christmas Story," Warner Bros.’ 1983 movie about a kid who pines for the perfect toy, plays nonstop on TBS and has spawned a mini-empire ranging from merchandise to a Broadway show. But the film’s success also has provoked a lawsuit scheduled to go to trial in January.
Zack Ward as Scut Farkus in "A Christmas Story."
At issue is whether the National Entertainment Collectables Association, which licensed the rights to make toys based on the movie, owes money to one of the film's actors. Most of the actors signed contracts that provided for set merchandising royalties — but not Zack Ward, who played the bully Scut Farkus at the age of 12. During production, the filmmakers had Ward trade lines with one of the other child actors, making the role of Farkus bigger than was originally intended. However, the producers failed to then upgrade his contract to control his publicity rights.
Ward was shocked in November 2010 at the annual "Christmas Story" charity fundraiser convention in Cleveland, Ohio, when a fan handed him a "Christmas Story" board game that showed his face on the box and the game's playing cards. Later, Ward also discovered a calendar too.
Ward, now 42 and still acting (he’s had small parts in "Transformers" and "CSI: NY"), sued because NECA had allegedly tricked him into signing away rights for a Farkus action figure when the company realized that its deal with Warners didn’t cover all of the actors.
Ward briefly sued Warners too, but dismissed that lawsuit when the studio gave him some cooperation. Now, in a lawsuit against NECA, he has told the judge, "I am sure the Court can imagine my feelings of humiliation and anger at the Defendants for having purposefully defrauded me."
During a deposition, Ward, nervous and attempting to lighten the mood, slipped into a Dr. Evil voice and said, "One billion dollars" when asked how much he wanted. NECA has responded that the lawsuit came too late and is prepared to have experts testify that $6 million in claimed damages are overstated for a board game that grossed about $750,000 in sales.
In late October, a judge denied the defendant's motion to dismiss Ward's attempt to collect money over emotional distress damages from any violation of his rights of publicity. The judge ruled that the credibility of Ward's statement that defendants "stole [his] face" being an "emotional situation" was something to be determined by a jury.
Will "A Christmas Story" move from TBS this month to a courtroom trial next month?
Kent Raygor, the attorney for NECA and its president Joel Weinshanker, says "the parties reached agreement on terms of settlement" after a mediation session earlier this month.
But Randall Newman, the attorney for Ward, insists there are still "major issues" to be resolved, among them being that his client is adamant that any settlement not be confidential.
Ward says he wants to be heard.
“People have to be accountable,” the former movie thug tells THR. “You can’t just bully people all the time and get away with it.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.