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Future Unclear for ‘Peanuts’ Shows

March 1, 2000

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) _ Charles Schulz left strict instructions that nobody else could draw ``Peanuts,″ and days before he died, told one of his daughters that animated shows featuring Charlie Brown and the gang must end as well.

Now, the cartoonist’s children are worried that the company that produces the ``Peanuts″ shows will turn out programs that stray too far from Schulz’s legacy.

``They’ll end up being like South Park or something like that,″ says Schulz’s son Monte.

The problem for the family is that, although Schulz earned more than $30 million a year from his creations, he didn’t actually own the copyright to the ``Peanuts″ characters.

That remains firmly in the hands of United Media, which got 61 percent of its $84.9 million in 1998 revenues from the comics, TV shows and licensing deals that put the strip’s characters on everything from lunch boxes to life insurance ads.

When Schulz began drawing Peanuts in 1950, comics distributors often demanded the copyrights to protect their investments. Schulz was never able to get his back.

United Media hasn’t met with the family or Schulz’s collaborators to discuss making more shows, and wouldn’t elaborate about its plans.

After queries by The Associated Press, the company issued a two-sentence statement saying it ``looks forward to continuing our long-term relationship with Mr. Schulz’s family. United Media will manage and operate the Peanuts business as it has for decades, focusing on the long-term success of this classic property.″

Spokeswoman Diane Iselin wouldn’t say much more. ``What I would say is that, at the appropriate time, we will discuss business issues with the Schulz family and that will include animation.″

Schulz had two or three more TV shows in the works at the time of his death last month, including a Snoopy-as-Pied Piper story to be released on home video later this year.

His children have no problem with continued merchandising of Peanuts goods, as long as they can reject products they don’t like.

But they feel that creating new ``Peanuts″ content without his input is unacceptable _ especially after Schulz told to his daughter Jill Transki that he expected the shows to end with his death.

``A lot of people were asking about the animated shows; I thought get it directly from him,″ she recalled. ``He looked at me just incredulously ... He was like, ’You’ve got to be crazy.″

It was the children who insisted that Schulz’s contract stipulate no one else would draw the strip after his death. The contract also said he had to approve all ``creative projects,″ a right that now belongs to his widow, Jean, and his children, according to the family’s lawyer, Barbara Gallagher.

Gallagher believes creative projects includes animated shows _ and that she trusts United Media to heed the family’s wishes. ``I don’t believe that they’re going to try to pursue anything that the family doesn’t want,″ she said.

Nonetheless, Monte Schulz got worried after a United Media representative hinted that the company will want to create new shows to help maintain the franchise’s value.

``But forget it,″ he said. ``At the expense of the integrity of the strip? The characters themselves? Dad’s legacy? Not a chance. We’ll have to live with fewer dollars in our pockets,″ he said.

For United Media, there’s plenty at stake.

Annual revenue from the strip in 1998 was only about $2 million, according to the latest figures available from United Media’s parent, The E.W. Scripps Co., while licensing of Peanuts products, including the TV shows, brought in $50 million.

New animated shows would keep the franchise fresh, stimulating demand for related products, said securities analysts.

``I was under the impression the strips would stop but everything else would kind of continue business as usual,″ said James Marsh, an analyst with Prudential Securities.

Schulz’s two closest collaborators on the TV shows, producer Lee Mendelson, 66, and animator Bill Melendez, 84, haven’t ruled out creating more if asked.

``Its not my decision; it’s the decision of the children and United Media,″ Mendelson said.

Melendez said he can write stories that would be true to Schulz, and he believes that United Media will try to find a way to make more. ``I’ve never seen a money-making machine like this just let die, especially by the people who own it,″ he said.

But Melendez fears the company will hire other animators who never worked with Schulz.

``As long as they want me to make these shows, I’ll do them. And if they don’t want me to do them, they’re going to run into a real nest of hornets. Because I’m the only one that can do them,″ Melendez said.

Amy Johnson, one of Schulz’s daughters, thinks her father’s legacy _ which includes 62 animated shows and four feature-length movies in United Media’s library _ should be left to stand on its own.

``Certainly we can look at those things over and over. You read great books over and over. You look at great paintings over and over. And that’s what you want to pass down to your children.″

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