Peter S. Beagle was in his late twenties when his second novel, The Last Unicorn, was published in 1968. Fourteen years later, the fantasy story was adapted into an animated film—with an all-star cast including Mia Farrow and Christopher Lee—for which Beagle wrote the screenplay. It was, he recalled as he sat in the lobby of a Manhattan movie theater on a recent Saturday afternoon, the only input he had in its making. “People saw it and would congratulate me,” he said, “but it really didn’t have much to do with me.”
That feeling was exacerbated by contractual problems where, despite being promised percentages of both the film’s net profits and the gross on related merchandising, Beagle still wasn’t seeing any income beyond his initial screenwriting fee well into the 21st century. His business manager and publisher, Connor Cochran of Conlan Press, assisted in the negotiations—eight and a half years later, though, their efforts to resolve the situation amicably still hadn’t gotten anywhere. But then, as they began preparing to file a lawsuit in 2010, Scottish businessman Adam Crozier became the new CEO of ITV, the British media conglomerate that owned the company that had made the movie and Cochran saw an opportunity.
“Here was a fellow who had no reason to cover anyone’s ass,” he recalled; his efforts to reach out to Crozier eventually led to a meeting with the firm’s head of legal, Andrew Garard. When they met later that year, “half of the first meeting was Peter and Andrew geeking out about their favorite authors.” It didn’t take long for them to strike a deal aimed at reconciling all the various rights—Beagle had the gaming rights to the novel, for example, but they were virtually useless when separated from ITV’s rights to the likenesses of the film’s versions of the characters—to everyone’s profit.
The Last Unicorn Tour, one of the first fruits of the new partnership between Beagle and ITV, was inspired by fortuitous circumstances in 2009, when a convention appearance by Beagle coincided with a screening of the film at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. Cochran arranged for Beagle to put in an appearance; it was a huge success, and a spontaneously arranged follow-up sold out in less than 24 hours. Why not, Cochran reasoned, replicate that experience in theaters across the United States—or even further?
Things got off to a bumpy start; the booking agency that handles ITV’s films wasn’t convinced that a 30-year-old animated movie would draw much of a crowd, and refused to set up screenings very far in advance, making initial promotion efforts difficult. But Cochran persevered and the results were so strong that ITV has given him the exclusive worldwide distribution rights to the film: “It’s like,” he said, laughing and shaking his head, “Disney saying that all of its movies will continue to be distributed by Buena Vista, except that they’re giving Peter Pan to this guy named Carl, who isn’t really in the movie business, but they like his ideas.”
A digitally remastered edition of The Last Unicorn, one that clears up some of the sound problems from the current DVD release, is certainly a major draw, but the tour also benefits from the added presence of Beagle himself—signing merchandise both before and after the movie, as well as participating in a Q&A with the audience. During one of several recent screenings in the New York City area, he joked about not having seen any of the film until a private screening just before its release and being glad he hadn’t known the rock band America was doing the music, since his daughter had driven him crazy playing “Horse with No Name” over and over. He also offered encouraging advice to aspiring writers in the audience: “Drop that word ‘aspiring,’” he told one woman, reminding her not to confuse writing with being published. “If you’re writing, you’re a writer.”
Although Cochran and his team have the exclusive rights to sell books and other merchandise at the screenings, he is eager to work with bookstores and libraries in other ways as the tour continues over the next two years. (It’ll be in the Pacific Northwest in November, and the Southeast in mid-December—these and subsequent dates will be posted on the official tour website.) Beagle will sign anything fans bring to the theaters, so Cochran hopes to build up advance book sales—including a new illustrated hardcover of the novel due in 2014—and also invites bookstores and libraries to distribute flyers to the audiences. He expects this version of The Last Unicorn may be seen by as many as 400,000 to 500,00 people by the end of 2015—including its first theatrical release in Japan, where it’s a huge hit on home video (the main animation team was from Japan, and many of them would go on to work with the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki).
And Beagle is clearly enjoying himself. “It’s exciting to see a hall full of people,” he said before that afternoon’s screening began. “You understand why people who don’t need the money, who don’t need the work, find it so difficult to get off the stage.”
13 October 2013 | uncategorized |