It has been a long six years since Scott Sava persuaded some Chinese investors to give him $13.5 million to make an animated film.
An illustrator from Franklin, Tenn., Sava had written a graphic novel for his twin boys about a magic box of animal crackers, and he wanted to adapt it to the screen. Since then, he has been sued twice, represented himself in court against Hollywood bulldog Marty Singer (with predictable results), gotten entangled in Ryan Kavanaugh’s bankruptcies, and was threatened with the loss of his house.
Ultimately, he was forced to turn over the film to an angry seafood distributor.
After all that, “Animal Crackers” is finally landing on Netflix at midnight on Thursday.
But even then, the legal wrangling won’t be over.
At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Netflix is due to appear in Los Angeles Superior Court to fend off a last-minute bid to cancel the film’s release. An Australian sales agent has filed suit claiming that it holds the international distribution rights.
Assuming Netflix prevails — and unlike Sava, it does have money for lawyers — families will be able to watch Sava’s story of a man who dreams of running a circus and the magic cookies that bring his dreams to life. The film boasts an all-star voice cast — John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Ian McKellan, Danny DeVito, Wallace Shawn — and an 80% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Sava, who declined to comment for this story, laid out his version of events in a series of anguished court pleadings in Seattle last year. He had hung tenaciously to ownership of the project, even turning down an early offer from Harvey Weinstein because it would have meant giving up control.
But as the film went millions over budget, he was forced to go hat in hand to a series of investors, hoping to get enough money to pay off his actors, finish the film, and provide some sort of return to the China Film Group, which had put up the initial money. Sava contends that he was extorted and abused by a series of Hollywood big-shots who knew that he had no money and exploited his weakness.
One of the potential financiers — Darby Financial Products of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. — sued Sava after he refused to pay a $100,000 breakup fee after a $6 million deal fell apart. The suit, which later settled, complicated his efforts to get distribution.
Sava ultimately turned to Rodger May, president of Northwest Fish Co., a seafood magnate who in recent years has taken an interest in film investing. In September 2016, May agreed to a one-year loan of $5 million, at 10% interest, to allow Sava to complete the film.
At the time, Sava thought he had a deal with Ryan Kavanaugh — the head of Relativity Media — to distribute the film with a $10 million guarantee. However, that deal also fell apart — the apparent victim of Relativity’s multiple bankruptcies — and Sava ended up paying Kavanaugh more than $400,000 to get the movie back. Sava was then unable to pay back May’s loan, and in fact had to ask May for an additional $500,000 to cover the cost to unwind the Kavanaugh deal.
According to emails filed in the case, May agreed to top up the loan, provided that the filmmakers did not cut out his brief voice cameo as “the perverted man in the fruitstand offering a peach.” May also obtained a lien on the project as collateral.
The film debuted at the Annecy Film Festival in 2017. Somewhat to May’s surprise, it was released on 12,000 screens in China in July 2018. According to Sava’s filings, this was done at the urging of the China Film Group, which warned that the project was about to lose its co-production license from the Chinese government. The film grossed $9.4 million in China — none of which found its way back to the U.S.
Meanwhile, according to the court filings, Byron Allen’s company, Entertainment Studios, was brought in to distribute the film. Arclight Films — the Australian sales agent — was also working to sell the film in various overseas territories, despite its “bad reputation” among sales agents due to its shifting release dates.
The film languished without a release, and May — whose loan was now two years overdue — decided to take matters into his own hands.
May hired Marty Singer and filed a federal suit in Seattle in July 2019. He obtained a restraining order barring Sava from attempting to distribute the film.
Without the money for a lawyer, Sava threw himself on the mercy of the court. In a series of letters to the judge, Sava noted that his son had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, requiring costly medication. He described May as a “millionaire fisherman” with no movie experience, who was meddling in his project and harming his family.
“I’m an artist in Franklin, TN,” he wrote. “This is my first film too. We all make mistakes. But your honor, I’m sorry. I’m sick and tired of bullies and liars.”
Sava’s pleas to the judge did not help his case much. He had, after all, defaulted on the loan. But in a series of emails between him and May in late 2019, he tried to patch up the relationship.
Netflix had offered $8 million for worldwide distribution rights to the project. Sava pleaded with May to take $5.5 million of that, and leave the remaining $2.5 million to Sava. In a heartfelt email, he told May that he was broke. He and his wife would use the money to pay off various debts, including to family and friends who invested in the film, and have enough left over to send his kids to college.
He begged for the chance to “walk away from this film with dignity and pride.”
“We are not a corporation,” he wrote. “We have no power. We’re just an art major and marketing major who just turned 50, have twin boys racing towards college, medical bills, and a house payment. We took a chance. We chased a dream. And we just want to have a small HAPPY ENDING to our journey.”
May seemed genuinely moved, and said that he and his wife would give it some thought. But he also asked Sava for a gesture of goodwill. He asked him to take the next 90 days, and about $100,000, to do everything required to complete the film for Netflix.
Sava responded eagerly, saying he wanted nothing more than to finish the deal. But he dug in on his demands, insisting on a $2 million settlement that would include $500,000 for his early backers and $1.5 million for himself and his family.
After three and a half years, May had had enough. He was not negotiating — he was offering what he saw as a gift to someone who was too dumb to know he was beaten.
“Scott, my acts of kindness are officially over!” May wrote. “I have been nothing but kind and generous to you and your family over the years to only be kicked in the nuts, slandered and threatened repeatedly!”
Regarding Sava’s kids’ college educations, May advised: “If you are truly as broke as you claim I hope your children are very smart and earn themselves a scholarship.”
May took full control of the film. He completed the deal with Netflix on his own.
Arclight, meanwhile, began to send threatening letters to Netflix, claiming that the deal violated its agreement, and that it has already sold the theatrical rights in Myanmar, Vietnam, and some portion of Latin America. The letters did nothing to slow the release of the film, so the company filed suit on Tuesday.
“Arclight does not have the rights it claims and the action has no merit,” said one of May’s attorneys, Paul Sorrell of Lavely & Singer.
With the release approaching, Sava has been doing what he can to promote the film — and stress the positive. In a piece for Animation Magazine, he talked about how surreal it was to see McKellan speak his words, and to watch Blunt and Krasinski laugh at his jokes.
“The production was a dream,” he wrote. “From 2014 to the beginning of 2017, it was ‘pure creative bliss’ as I like to tell people. It truly was. It was the following three years that were the real struggle.”
Update, 9 a.m. Friday: A judge has denied Arclight’s request for a restraining order, allowing the release to go forward.