‘Star Wars’ novelists demand royalties from Disney

Alan Dean Foster was in his late twenties when George Lucas, standing by a model of the Millennium Falcon in a Southern California warehouse, met him to discuss writing the new adaptation of his upcoming film. “Star Wars”.

The original contract called for an initial payment of $7,500, until Mr. Lucas paid Mr. Foster a 0.5% royalty on sales which Mr. Foster, now 74, said represents several times this initial payment. They arrived several times a year as the original 1977 blockbuster set box office records and the novelization he wrote sold over a million copies.

Then, in 2012, Walt Disney Co. bought Lucasfilm Ltd. — and the royalty checks have stopped.

Now Mr. Foster and other authors from franchises bought by Disney are in a heated dispute with Hollywood’s biggest empire, which they say is refusing to pay royalties on the book deals it has absorbed into as part of the $4 billion deal with Lucasfilm and other acquisitions. The amount of money involved is tiny for a company the size of Disney, but significant for the writers who seek it out. While Disney has tapped Lucasfilm for new films that have collectively grossed nearly $6 billion at the global box office, these writers claim the company has delayed processing their complaints and forced them to pay checks that rarely total a few thousand dollars each.

Since Mr. Foster’s dispute was made public by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, other authors of books related to projects ranging from Indiana Jones to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” have told stories similar royalty checks that ceased after the Disney acquisition. Properties. In each case, Disney is threatening to alienate an obscure but vital tentacle of the franchises, as these novelizations have helped build and maintain fan loyalty. To complicate matters: the exact amount at stake is unknown, as sales and royalties for the affected books have fluctuated wildly over time.

A Disney spokesperson said, “We are carefully reviewing whether any royalty payments may have been missed as a result of the acquisition integration and will take appropriate corrective action if so.”

Mr. Foster, who is well known to longtime Star Wars fans, says Disney ignores everyday players who help build cross-generational connections with beloved characters. He and his wife are both in poor health and he said the fees could help with medical costs.

“I’m not Steve Spielberg. I’m not Steve King. I don’t even have a name that starts with Steve,” he said.

The dispute began in the summer of 2019, when Mr Foster’s literary agent Vaughne Hansen first asked Disney why he had stopped receiving royalty checks on three related novels he had written. to “Alien,” the space horror series produced by Twentieth Century Fox, the studio Disney bought in a $71.3 billion deal in 2019.

Mr Foster and his agent then realized the same thing had happened with his royalties for two Star Wars books after Disney bought Lucasfilm.

In response to questions about the “Alien” checks, a Disney attorney told Mr. Foster that the company had acquired the rights to those books, but not the obligation to pay royalties. But in the case of “Alien,” Ms. Hansen said, the rights to Mr. Foster’s novels had been reallocated multiple times, with no break in royalty checks, before Disney bought Fox.

“Disney acquired a house with a mortgage on it. They want to continue living in the house. They don’t want to pay the mortgage,” Foster said.

The group of writers says a similar pattern has emerged following other Disney acquisitions. At least half a dozen writers across a range of Disney-owned properties have since said they’re in the same boat, said Mary Robinette Kowal, president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Disney has begun looking into the “Alien” deal, but there’s a line of writers behind Mr. Foster waiting for a turn at the negotiating table. In total, Ms. Hansen estimates her client had received more than $50,000 in royalties from the original Star Wars novelization alone before checks were stopped in 2012.

If Disney agrees to calculate the missing royalties, it faces a daunting task tracking down sales that span six years and, in Mr. Foster’s case alone, five novels published in dozens of international markets.

Donald Glut, a writer who romanticized ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in the 1980s, and James Kahn, who adapted the third film in the original trilogy, ‘Return of the Jedi’, both said they miss him also royalty checks.

If a resolution isn’t found, the writers’ association could take other steps, Ms. Kowal said, including putting Disney on a list of publishers it asks its members to avoid. The term given to such a designation: “Writer Beware”.

Write to Erich Schwartzel at erich.schwartzel@wsj.com