Cult fantasy novelist seeks payback for his creation
Peter S. Beagle spent much of his teenage years captivated by a painting he received from a friend. Captured in bright colors and broad brush strokes, three unicorns fought two attacking bulls. At age 22, with a published novel already on the shelves, Beagle began to write the story that would, over the next four years, evolve into "The Last Unicorn," the tale of a unicorn’s quest to save her species.
Released in 1968, the book is now a cult favorite and has sold more than five million copies in more than 20 languages. A decade later, Beagle sold the movie rights to the story and wrote the screenplay for the animated film of the same name. Released in 1982, the movie developed a loyal following in America and Europe.
Despite all his past success, Beagle is now broke, living a paycheck-to-paycheck existence in the house of his recently deceased mother, which he may soon have to vacate. His contract with the now-defunct movie studio ITC Media guaranteed him 5 percent of the net box office profits and 5 percent of the gross income for all merchandising related to the movie.
But officials at Granada Media, which now owns the rights to the film, say they owe him nothing. They claim the movie cost roughly $4 million to make and is now $15 million in the red thanks to marketing costs and the interest accrued on the film’s growing debt, according to Beagle’s manager, Connor Cochran. Granada Media declined to comment.
Beagle and Cochran insist that the movie did make money. To get what they believe the author is owed, they are trying to raise at least $70,000 to take the company on in court.
To Beagle’s surprise, his fans have come to his aid.
“It turns out I do have a fan base, many more people than I imagined,” Beagle said. “That’s something that I’m not used to yet. It hadn’t occurred to me that people were affected by what I write. I live so much in myself, it simply didn’t occur to me how much had gotten out.”
Cochran, a longtime fan himself, created a Web site where supporters can send donations or buy autographed copies of Beagle's books and "The Last Unicorn" DVD, re-released in February, the proceeds of which go directly to Beagle. The week the DVD came out, he sold 2,000 copies on the Web site (an additional 35,000 sold in stores across the country).
“Without the Internet, nothing would have been possible,” Cochran said.
About 200 fans have donated a total of $5,000. One supporter, Marc Hairston, a space physicist in Dallas, did so because of his fondness for Beagle’s most acclaimed novel. Hairston vividly remembers stumbling on "The Last Unicorn" at a secondhand bookstore as a college sophomore. He’s now read it more than a dozen times. “It’s real magic,” he said. “All the others are just pretenders.”
When Hairston heard about Beagle’s problems, he sent Beagle a check for $100, bought several copies of books and recordings, and e-mailed the nearly 700 people who had contacted him about a Web site he had made for "The Last Unicorn" in 1995.
“It broke my heart, obviously,” Hairston said. “It’s the thing with all artists, they do something wonderful that touches people and you hope that they make enough money to support themselves. I want Peter to get what’s owed him.”
However, some industry lawyers say his efforts may prove fruitless. Steven Schechter, a New Jersey-based lawyer who specializes in entertainment industry contracts, doubts a reputable company would lie about a movie’s profits. “Most legitimate companies don’t keep two sets of books,” Schechter said. “That’s called fraud.”
If there’s no evidence to back up Beagle’s claims that the movie made a profit, Schechter says, then he only has a right to what is on paper--and 5 percent of nothing will always be nothing.
For now, Beagle takes comfort in the fact that his financial situation is slowly improving, thanks in large part to his devoted fans. In 2001 he was a quarter of a million dollars in debt, living in an Oakland, Calif., house on the brink of foreclosure with hefty medical bills piling up for his mother.
But in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Cochran, a friend of a friend, came to a book signing, his life began to change. When Beagle confided his troubles to Cochran, a musician and writer, Cochran said he was “completely horrified” and decided immediately to help, soon becoming Beagle’s manager.
Cochran scoured Beagle’s files for unpublished works, compiling and releasing a new volume of short stories. He also encouraged Beagle to write a short sequel to "The Last Unicorn" called “Two Hearts,” for which Beagle won a 2006 Hugo Award, fantasy and science fiction’s highest accolade. Two of his books will return to print in May, and in September he’ll release his first new novel in eight years. He’s also planning to write a full-length sequel to "The Last Unicorn."
“It’s still very much day-to-day, month-to-month, but it’s getting better,” Beagle said of his financial situation.
Meanwhile, he’s trying to keep up with autographing the books and DVDs that fans order through his Web site. “It gets in the way of writing,” Beagle said with a smile. “On the other hand, you think of what each copy represents and you buckle down.”