DAN TURNER Staff Reporter
In 1959, General Mills Inc. paid a fledgling animation company called Jay Ward Productions Inc. $8,000 per episode to deliver a television cartoon about a brainless moose, his flying rodent companion, and a brilliant dog who travels through time with his pet boy.
Rocky, Bullwinkle and their pals were born.
Nearly 40 years later, those lovable cartoon icons that were originally created to promote breakfast cereals are starring in a legal battle for rights over a property so valuable it would satisfy Snidely Whiplash’s wildest dreams of avarice.
Eight jurors at U.S. District Court in downtown Los Angeles will hear from witnesses this week in a trial that pits Universal Studios Inc. and the successors of now-deceased producer Jay Ward against General Mills and its ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi North America Inc.
The verdict will finally determine who owns the rights to Rocky, Bullwinkle and assorted other characters for ads, TV shows and films.
The question is an important one, because popular TV characters that Baby Boomers grew up with have taken on new and very lucrative life in the ’90s.
Robert Welsh, a partner at West L.A. law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp who specializes in intellectual property law, said the rights to characters like Rocky and Bullwinkle are probably worth millions of dollars.
“I think many merchandisers are realizing that finding a vehicle that will appeal to both parents and children is very valuable in marketing a product,” Welsh said. “Rocky and Bullwinkle fit that model.”
Baby Boomers who are now parents of young children take their kids to movies, or buy them toys, featuring characters that the parents recognize from their own childhoods.
The result is a revival of such long-dormant characters from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Flipper, the Addams Family and a host of others.
Included are those daffy denizens of Frostbite Falls, Minn. Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle Moose.
The current dispute hinges on four letters written in 1959 and 1960 that served as contracts for production of the original series “The Bullwinkle Show.”
According to the case file, Jay Ward Productions and a now-defunct company called Producers Associates of Television Inc. sold exclusive rights to the show and characters to General Mills in exchange for cash.
Attorneys for Universal and West Hollywood-based Ward contend that those rights expired in 1964, after the last year of production for “The Bullwinkle Show,” because General Mills did not exercise its option to continue the series.
General Mills, however, contends that it bought the rights to the show and characters in perpetuity.
Although no official gag order has been issued, attorneys on both sides declined comment on the case until after a verdict is reached. Attorney Ronald Rosen with Century City-based Troy & Gould Professional Corp., who represents Ward Productions, said he expects the jury to begin deliberations by the end of next week.
Whichever side prevails in the ongoing trial is expected to seek damages from the loser, as well as repayment for all profits the other side has generated by exploiting the characters.
And Rocky and Bullwinkle have been very busy in recent years.
In 1991 and 1992, Ward granted promotional, merchandising, TV and film production rights to the “Bullwinkle Show” characters which besides Rocky and Bullwinkle include Dudley Do-Right, Sherman, Mr. Peabody, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale to Universal Studios.
Universal wasted little time taking advantage of its new franchise; before long, it had created a live attraction featuring the characters at the Universal Studios theme park, and began licensing them to advertisers.
Rocky and Bullwinkle in the past five years have appeared in TV spots for Taco Bell restaurants, Eveready batteries, the Minnesota State Lottery and Ford Motor Co. all of which licensed the characters from Universal.
Meanwhile, General Mills has been using the characters to promote its cereals, crackers and snack foods since 1960. It also has been selling the original show in syndication up to the present time.
The current suit began, oddly enough, after a Saatchi & Saatchi employee offered to pay Universal $60,000 in 1995 for the rights to use the characters in a TV commercial for General Mills’ Frosted Cheerios cereal.
Saatchi & Saatchi officials later discovered that General Mills already owned the rights to the characters and withdrew the offer, saying they would make the commercial without Universal’s permission, according to the case file.
So Universal and Ward filed suit. General Mills and Saatchi & Saatchi responded by filing a counter-suit against Universal and Ward.
The current action only applies to the characters from the original “Bullwinkle Show.” Later creations from Ward Productions, such as Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog, are undisputed Ward properties and are not involved in the suit.
That is particularly fortunate for Walt Disney Co., which on July 18 will release a live-action feature film called “George of the Jungle” based on the Ward character of the same name.
According to Welsh of Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, disputes like this one are becoming common in the entertainment industry.
Contracts in Hollywood were considerably more informal in the 1950s and ’60s than they are today and now that properties from that era are so valuable, these sometimes obscure documents often end up in court as producers and their heirs struggle for control.
“Hollywood used to be a fairly closed community,” Welsh said. “People understood the rules of the game. But those rules don’t necessarily stand up today.”