When Hollywood takes an interest in adapting a concept for the silver screen, it is the IP lawyers who are left to come up with exactly how that can happen.
As representative to the rights holders to The Smurfs, Hogan Lovells partner Raymond Kurz was asked to do just that when the small blue creatures made their big-screen debut this summer.
The Washington DC-based IP partner has represented computer companies, medical device firms, auto companies and designer fashion labels, but never before has he been asked to negotiate movie IP rights.
Kurz has worked for Lafig Belgium, which holds the rights to The Smurfs, for nearly 30 years. The client arrived at his door after a Belgian attorney, who had acted for the company before, instructed him in a US litigation for the company. The case settled on favourable terms and Kurz became the go-to lawyer in the US for Lafig Belgium.
At that time The Smurfs was the number one-rated cartoon in the US and related merchandising spanned everything from breakfast cereals to videos and dolls. Kurz was responsible for enforcement matters, and when he moved to Hogan Lovells in 2000 the client went with him.
The plan for the movie was hatched two years later.
Kurz recalls: “In 2002 the owners of The Smurfs tried to embark on a movie adventure and they called me. We have a Los Angeles office and we had an entertainment lawyer there who hooked us up with the Creative Artists Agency [CAA].
“My partner, the entertainment lawyer, then left the firm and I carried on representing them.”
Originally Paramount Pictures had wanted the movie rights. The challenge for the lawyer was to make sure the cartoon’s image and legacy was preserved while getting the best deal from the picture house.
With the support of the CAA and fellow partner Celine Crowson, Kurz set about defining everything legal about The Smurfs. This included preserving their trademark blue colour and white shorts and ensuring that they continued to wear their hats at all times.
“The business of being three apples high [as they are required to be] and the types of blue are things that are addressed in the contract,” Kurz explains.
Even with this all negotiated, however, the film did not go into production. Under the terms of the contract the studio had the option to give the rights back to Kurz’s client or assign them to another studio after several years.
In 2008 Sony stepped in and took over production and the lawyers had to get used to working with a new client. Finally the movie went into production and hits the UK’s cinema this summer.
“Having seen the movie it was clear that, although we put a lot of work into the paperwork to protect the integrity of the Smurf characters, the studio and the producer went above and beyond what was in the papers to protect and pay tribute to the Smurf legacy,” Kurz comments. “The lesson being that the people you deal with are as or more important than what you put down on paper.”
Crowson adds: “Although the movie business may seem like fun, it’s a serious business with smart, serious people who have their own rules and practices. We had to be pretty creative to meet the needs of the movie studio and the needs of the client.”
For the past decade Kurz has been doubling up as a movie lawyer in a deal that has taken his practice into a whole new arena. Yet it is not an area that he expects to dominate his practice.
That said, the resulting invite to the New York premiere of the movie was a career highlight and a fitting end to his decade of working with new movie stars The Smurfs.