“Marsu could be the next Mickey Mouse.”Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, 1992
Marsupilami was Disney’s next best attempt at capitalizing on a killer intellectual property. He would be the character they could merchandise to the ends of the earth.
He was already popular in Europe, where Disney was buying him from, so it seemed like a safe bet. Just add a little Disney magic and watch him explode, becoming the pajamas every kid wants to wear and the video game every teenager wants to master.
At a time when Disney’s fortunes were starting to fade, Marsupilami could have been the injection of energy and cuteness that could turn around the family-oriented I.P. king maker.
Unfortunately for Marsupilami, shortly after Disney signed a contract to exploit him, things started to turn around at the House of Mouse. The Disney Renaissance was on. “The Little Mermaid” was no isolated success story. “Beauty and the Beast” was a blockbuster and an Oscar Best Picture nominee. “Aladdin” was huge, and “The Lion King” was right around the corner to top them all.
Suddenly, Disney didn’t need Marsupilami anymore. He was, in fact, tossed aside and quickly forgotten.
That’s when the lawyers stepped in. Disney made some rather bold promises when they signed on Marsupilami, but they failed to execute on them.
This is the story of the time that Belgian comics creator and legend, Andre Franquin, sued Disney for millions of dollars — and won!
Where Did Marsupilami Come From?
Andre Franquin is a complicated individual, but an amazing artist. One of the founding artists of The Marcinelle School style of art, he rose to fame when he took over the Spirou serial in 1946. He spent the next twenty years drawing the series.
Halfway through that legendary run in 1957, he began work on Gaston LaGaffe, a more light-hearted character that became a legend all his own. Gaston quickly became very popular.
Franquin, in fact, left the Spirou series in 1967 to work full time on Gaston.
During his lengthy tenure on Spirou, he also created a remarkable little creature that quickly became a fan favorite. That was Marsupilami, the adorable yellow furred animal with the enormously long, prehensile tail. (Related: “How Did Marsupilami Get His Name?”)
Franquin kept the character for himself when he left Spirou, intending to do something with it. To ensure a smooth transition, he drew Marsupilami in one more Spirou album for Jean Claude Fournier, his hand-picked successor on the serial.
30 years later, in 1987, Franquin founded his own company, Marsu Productions. It would act as the holding company for his properties, including Marsupilami and Gaston LaGaffe.
Marsu Productions immediately produced a new Marsupilami comic book series, by single-named creators Greg and Batem. Eight albums came out in the next nine years.
The series was a hit.
That attracted some overseas interest in the intellectual property of Marsupilami.
When Disney comes knocking….
The story goes that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner was visiting Europe in the late 1980s when Marsupilami caught his attention. Eisner directed his licensing folks to look into the character.
In 1990, The Walt Disney Company signed a contract with Marsu Productions to “exploit” the character.
To give you some idea of how popular the character was in France, the projected Marsupilami comic book sales in 1990, alone, was $2,000,000. That’s just publishing — not movies, animation, television, video games, pajamas, Underoos, or any of that other stuff you think of today. The albums, alone, were expected to pull down a couple million dollars in that one year.
Keeping that in mind, Disney cut Marsu a deal that would pay them a minimum of $2,000,000 a year for five years. They threw in a $500,000 signing bonus on top of that, too.
Disney, getting a little full of itself, told Marsu that it would probably make more than that, though, because Disney is so darn good at exploiting properties for maximum profitability. As Disney raised the character’s profile worldwide, so, too, would sales of his comic rise.
The terms of the deal were these:
- Disney would make a 13 episode animated series (half hour each) starring Marsupilami by the end of 1993.
- Disney would try its darnedest to get that show on a television network.
- Disney would license the hell out of the character to make sure he was everywhere.
In other words, Marsupilami was set to become Stitch, a few years before Chris Sanders created “Lilo & Stitch”.
It was a good plan, right in the Disney playbook.
However, it was not meant to be.
At the end of the lawsuit, the counter-lawsuit, and the appeals process, Disney would wind up paying Fanquin’s Marsu Productions company close to $10 million for failing to live up to their end of the contract on every single point.
Let’s follow what happened to see what went so horribly wrong for Disney here.
Maybe Disney’s Not Completely Evil?
Disney started by producing Marsupilami shorts instead of full half-hour episodes.
In 1991, Disney told Marsu that the best way to get television networks to air a solo Marsupilami series would be to introduce him somewhere else first, in a series of shorts. Warm the audience up.
The networks didn’t want to take a chance on a half hour cartoon featuring an unknown character, Disney said. The networks told them that directly.
Marsu went along with it.
I can almost buy that. Seems reasonable. They were covering their bets. They had Marsu’s buy-in. All seemed well.
Problem is, this roll-out plan was based on a Disney fabrication.
And that’s where Disney made an awful, awful mistake. Well, actually two. The first was creative. The second deals with the marketing.
Let’s start with the creative:
Detour Into Awful 90s Disney Crap
Remember “House of Mouse“? It was a Saturday morning animated series anthology starring all of Disney’s biggest name characters. It featured new shorts starring Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and lots more.
That would have been a perfect vehicle to introduce Marsupilami in. It didn’t premiere until 2001, though.
No, instead, Marsupilami co-starred in a series Disney named “Raw Toonage.” That series debuted in September 1992.
Even the title, itself, gives you a clue that this was not an advantageous thing. Marsupilami shorts were paired with two other segments. One was called “Totally Tasteless Video.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the other one is where things went south in a hurry.
“Raw Toonage” was a vehicle for — Bonkers the Bobcat.
For those of you fortunate enough not to have lived through the travesty that was “Bonkers,” let’s go to one more tangent:
“Bonkers” was the Disney Afternoon series that bombed so badly that they recast it and reset the show after the first handful of episodes.
The show was spectacularly and monumentally bad. Superlatives cannot suffice. Don’t believe me? You can see it for yourself now on Disney+. Good luck.
This was a surprise failure. Up until that point, the Disney Afternoon showed great quality: “DuckTales”, “TaleSpin”, “Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers”, and “Darkwing Duck”.
Then came Bonkers the friggin’ Bobcat, a painfully unfunny series filled with animation and musical shortcuts about a washed-up cat actor who is now a police officer.
The conceit is that the shorts on “Raw Toonage” were examples of Bonker’s past acting life, before he became a police officer. ( “Zootopia” this was not.)
It’s a confusing mess of a series history, and even reading the Wikipedia explanation for it all is harrowing. It’s a series that was lost from its first day.
Poor Marsupilami got sucked into that mess.
Disney Loses the Lawsuit on the First Point Already
We’re still not at the point in this story where Marsu Productions files suit against Disney. It’s coming.
At this point, though, it’s worth looking at the final court decision to see what the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals thought of the lower court’s ruling in the case when it comes to “Raw Toonage.”
The Court does not get to have an opinion on the quality of the “Raw Toonage” series, but did eventually agree that it didn’t satisfy Disney’s obligation to Franquin’s company:
The court also found that the “shorts” produced under the “roll-out” strategy did not satisfy Disney’s animation obligation because the films did not feature Marsupilami.
[…] In addition, the district court determined that the “roll-out” strategy did not “amount to an exercise of best efforts.” We agree.
Not that anyone asked me, but I agree.
Though, technically, Disney still had another year. They promised a series by the end of 1993, after all, and “Raw Toonage” was a 1992 mistake.
One could argue that they still had time and were about to do the right thing, sticking to their carefully laid plan to introduce Marsupilami in one show before giving him a starring role in another the following year.
The Marsupilami Show
Exactly one year later, in 1993, Marsupilami did get a show on CBS Saturday mornings, simply titled “Marsupilami.”
The setting was changed from the comic books to set it in Africa instead of South America, and the animal spoke in this series, instead of his familiar comic shouts of “Houba! Houba!”
But it was the structure of this new series that got Disney into trouble.
Each episode featured a new eight minute Marsupilami short and a repeat Marsupilami short from “Raw Toonage.”
The third segment featured shorts starring either Sebastian the Crab from “The Little Mermaid” or — hold onto your hats — Schnookums and Meat.
The latter was Disney’s attempt to do “Ren and Stimpy.” They spun off into their own series in 1995. That only lasted one season.
The show is not available on Disney+. I looked. I bet I was the only one.
The “Marsupilami” series consisted of a third new shorts, a third reruns, and a third completely unrelated filler material.
The “solo” “Marsupilami” series (that starred Marsupilami, last year’s Marsupilami, Schnookums, and Meat) filled out its 13 episode order for CBS and died quickly and quietly.
The Disney Lie; Caught Red Handed
All of this was bad enough, but remember the underlying premise of the whole thing:
Disney talked to television networks. The networks told Disney that they wanted a soft launch for Marsupilami. It was too big a risk to give him his own series up front.
I’m jumping ahead a bit again, but here’s what the judge wrote in the decision of the Marsu Production vs. Disney lawsuit:
But while convincing Marsu to accept the roll-out strategy, Disney never revealed that no Disney official had ever asked any television network to air half-hour Marsupilami animations.
[Oh, and emphasis is mine there.]
That’s just bad. Marsu had agreed to Disney’s anthology “Raw Toonage” roll-out strategy on the basis that it would make selling the solo “Marsupilami” series to networks easier. Disney said the networks told them that.
Now, in court, Disney admitted that they never talked to any network about Marsupilami.
And that’s why the court threw the book at Disney.
Remember, also, that this is back in the early 90s. No Netflix. No Disney+. No satellite television. You had cable, but not 500 channels of it.
Cartoons were still on Saturday mornings or in syndication, usually right after school, or just before it. So you had to go to the networks. Disney didn’t even own ABC yet, either.
Disney never even tried to sell the show.
Insert a “Smack My Head” animated GIF here.
This will have to do:
But, wait! There’s more! Disney went for the hat trick!
After getting smacked down on the first two points, they ran the table.
The Disney Merchandising Machine, Dismantled
or: Disney Sales Fail
The third promise Disney made to Marsu at the beginning of the deal is that they’d market Marsupilami heavily.
Quoth the judge from the lawsuit:
…the merchandising campaign failed because Disney did not launch the campaign in coordination with television broadcasts of Marsupilami animations. What Disney did was launch a merchandising campaign in June 1993, nine months after the first animation “shorts” were broadcast [“Raw Toonage”] on network television and three months before the second animation “shorts” [“Marsupilami”] were broadcast.
Again, I say, “Whoops!” June feels to me like the perfect dead spot for merchandising a Saturday morning character. It’s too late in the first case, and too early in the second.
But you don’t have to take my word on it. Disney fielded an expert during the trial who made things worse:
Disney’s own expert testified that no one “in their right mind” would launch a merchandise campaign three months before the featured character appeared on television.
Again, that quote comes from an expert Disney put on the stand. Ouch.
How could Disney fail at one of the things they’re so good at? How could the mighty Disney marketing machine seize up like this?
One reason Disney failed to properly handle the Marsupilami merchandise campaign was that it placed the campaign in the hands of junior and inexperienced executives.
Ah. They put the junior varsity team on the field to handle the $10 million football from Belgium.
To Be Fair…
They didn’t exactly hide the little yellow guy. They did give him some new comic book adventures in the pages of “Disney Adventures,” which was available at the checkouts of supermarkets everywhere at that time.
Fun trivia: At least one of those stories was drawn by Disney animator and comic creator, Tom Bancroft.
The Memo to End All Memos
All of this was bad enough, but there was also a “smoking gun.” This is where the judge found enough proof to justify hurtling the figurative book with great force in the general direction of the Walt Disney Company.
A memo — those things people passed around the office in the days before emails — showed that Disney had willfully put Marsupilami on the back burner and had basically abandoned him:
In an October 1992 draft memo to Disney’s chief executive officer, a ranking Disney official on the Marsupilami project talked about whether Disney should exercise its option to terminate the Agreement with Marsu in light of Disney’s unexpected success with other “hot properties,” such as “Aladdin” and the “Little Mermaid.” The memo states that these properties were consuming all of Disney’s time and resources and making it impossible to “do Marsu right.” The memo recognized that Marsupilami was getting a cold reception because it had “less Disney weight behind it” than other hot properties.
With this memo, Disney loaded all chambers of its pistol with bullets, pointed it square at its own feet, and fired six shots.
They knew they were doing a bad job. It was a strategic decision to do a bad job. They admitted to all of this in writing.
This memo was written just as “Raw Toonage” began airing, remember. That series started a month prior to this memo and ended a little more than a month after it. The “Marsupilami” series, itself, was still a year away.
It Got Worse
Disney shifted its focus to its highly profitable and insanely popular movies. I don’t think anyone would blame them for that. Those movies created a dynasty and put Disney back on the animation map. (See the excellent documentary, “Waking Sleeping Beauty.”) They would have been leaving a lot of money on the table to not focus on their own movie characters.
Unfortunately, Disney didn’t tell Marsu Productions that they were giving up on them until they thought they legally had to —
— 15 months after that memo!
On December 27th, 1993 — four days before Disney had originally agreed to finish producing 13 episodes of a Marsupilami TV series — Disney told Marsu that they were going to terminate their agreement.
They waited 15 months from the time they wrote the memo about putting Marsu on the back burner to the point at which they informed Marsu Productions they were breaking up. They purposefully dragged this out for more than a year. That’s something that turned out to be a strategic mistake, too.
Disney argued that they cancelled the contract before December 31, 1993, per the contract’s timelines. They additionally argued that their roll-out strategy superseded the original contract’s 13 whole episodes requirement.
Are you ready for another boneheaded Disney mistake in this case?
Per the original contract, the termination of the contract had to be done with 180 days’ notice. So Disney technically didn’t kill the contract until June 1994, well after their deadline to produce a solo Marsupilami half hour series.
All they managed to produce was two series of shorts. Marsupilami never got the solo half hour he was promised, contractually.
The judge found this to be in breach both of specific terms of the contract as well as “good faith and fair dealing.” The court even threw “fraudulent concealment” on top of that.
The Knock On Effect
When Disney terminated their contract, they also waived all the guaranteed sales minimums from their licensees. That’s money the licensees would be paying to the licensor (Disney), expecting a minimum amount of sales of Disney’s next hot property. Disney waived those minimums.
In a way, this is the responsible thing to do. Disney is admitting defeat. They’re not living up to their end of the bargain with the licensees. Without marketing Marsupilami, all those licensed Marsupilami tchachkes would be harder to sell.
Effectively, Disney said, “Pay for whatever you sell, but don’t worry if you don’t hit your expected number from our contract. It’s our fault. We won’t hold it against you.”
The problem is, that’s money that would have gone to Marsu. Disney gave up the ghost and then killed the revenue stream that Marsu expected.
Since Disney broke the contract in a way the court didn’t approve of, the court also held Disney responsible for that lost revenue stream. Marsu won an additional $431,000 for those lost licensing fees.
Disney Countersued, Of Course
…and it turned out to be even more embarrassing for them.
There was another clause in the contract that stipulated that Marsu Productions would pay Disney some amount of royalties based on book sales. This is Disney saying they were going to boost Marsupilami’s visibility, thus creating additional book sales that they deserved a cut of.
None of the court filings I’ve found specify how much that payment would be, but the terms were not disputed by Marsu.
Because of that, Disney, in the course of losing a multi-million dollar lawsuit, countersued. They claimed that Marsu didn’t pay Disney those French language print royalties.
A lower district court found that Marsu had, in fact, paid Disney, the accounting was impeccable, and all was good in this department. Upon appeal, the upper court agreed. Marsu Productions won. Disney made no money off this claim.
The sum total of the royalties Marsu did pay Disney that we’re talking about here? $19,727.
That’s a rounding error for Disney, but their lawyers needed a win somewhere, I suppose.
Yet, they still lost.
I can’t find any notes or transcripts or anything of the 1999 hearing in front of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but the AP News Archive does have this one description of Disney’s defense:
In a hearing earlier this month, [Disney’s lawyer] argued that Marsu’s problems stemmed from its own inflated ideas about how much money could be made.
The hard nosed businessman in me wants to take that claim under consideration. We hear plenty of stories of businesses that fail after their owners were too grandiose in their visions for their company’s success, or too confident in their own value.
Is it possible that Marsu overestimated how popular Disney could make Marsupilami? That’s life sometimes, right? You can’t guarantee success, particularly in the entertainment industry where audiences can be so fickle.
The problem is, Marsupilami was already making $2 million in 1990 without Disney’s help. That’s without movies or television shows. That’s just in comic books.
That helped to set the minimum value of the character during that five year contract.
Disney said that they could hit those numbers, remember, and even said they’d do better.
They didn’t. By their own admission, they punted completely. They paid the price.
Not a Total Loss for Disney
Marsu claimed that, effectively, Disney was being mean about this whole thing.
The appeals court judges ruled in Disney’s favor.
Congrats on your one win there, Disney legal team! You aren’t as mean as some people think. The judge said so.
Possibly, you were incompetent and a bad business partner and not overly communicative, but other than that…
To Dream the Impossible Dream
Andre Franquin sued Disney and won. How many creatives would have ever even tried?
In the end, Disney paid Marsu over $10,000,000 for breach of contract, lost opportunities, and legal fees. (The Marsu lawyers took home almost a million dollars of that number.)
Disney has not since shown any of those shorts or episodes on any of its channels. After the lawsuit, everything was pulled from television, never to be seen again. The only show mentioned in this article that’s on Disney+ is “Bonkers.” You won’t find “Marsupilami,” “Raw Toonage,” or even the single-season “Schnookums and Meat” on there.
There’s always YouTube, though.
Sadly, Andre Franquin died about six months before the initial ruling was issued in the case in 1997.
(All of the quotes from the judgment in this article come from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision two years later.)
Marsupilami in Other Media
This was not the end of animation for the little yellow guy.
The French have made a couple of animated series out of him since the Disney days, with a new one coming out soon in France.
A major live action motion picture opened in France in 2012. (You can rent it on Amazon.) That one was written and directed by Alain Chabat, who had previously made the live action “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” movie.
Lesson Learned: Sometimes, Justice Prevails
You can’t fight city hall, we’re told.
There’s no bigger City Hall in the entertainment business than Disney.
Andre Franquin, a comic book creator from Belgium, fought that City Hall and won. That’s not a story you hear too frequently. Usually, it’s something like Marv Wolfman suing Disney over Blade and losing, or Jack Kirby basically getting stomped on left and right. (That went up to the Supreme Court before Disney settled with the estate.)
In the grand scheme of things, this is a relatively minor story. $10 million for Disney is a nickel ticket price increase in one of their theme parks for a year, right?
But it does prove that not all fights are guaranteed losers, even if it’s against the biggest companies with the most powerful lawyers in the world.
It helped that Disney so royally botched this one, complete with all the paperwork to prove it, that they couldn’t squirm their way out of it.
In one case in Comic Book Land, justice actually got served. Andre Franquin sued the House of Mouse. And won.
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The Podcast Version of This Article
Listen to it here on The Pipeline Comics Podcast:
March 6, 1997: Wall Street Journal: “Disney Still Owes $9.3 Million Award For Failing to Make Marsupilami a Star“
September 28, 1997: L.A. Times: “Mickey’s Masters Killed Fellow Cartoon Critter“
July 28, 1999: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision
September 29, 1997: Variety: “Mouse to Pay Marsu“
Lambiek.net: Andre Franquin Biography
Animation Magazine: “Belgium’s Belvision Pounces on New CG ‘Marsupilami’ Series“