Thursday, October 21, 2010
Life’s a Jungle Out There for ‘Dora the Explorer’
Dora the Explorer is one unhappy camper. Caitlin Sanchez, the former voice of “Dora,” who was fired after her voice changed, has sued Nickelodeon through her parents, as she is a minor and her parents are the guardians and also entered into the contract. The claim against Nickelodeon asserts the company forced Sanchez to enter an unconscionable deal which “swindled” her out of tens of millions of dollars while also exploiting her. It is still in the early stages of development, but Sanchez claims she is owed these “millions” through merchandising revenue, residuals, and marketing that she was never paid for. She is claiming when she originally entered the contract, Nickelodeon forced her and her family to sign within twenty minutes or the part of Dora would be given to someone else. Further, she is arguing that the contract contained many unfair and vague provisions, forced her to participate in activities not prescribed by the contract, and did not pay or only paid minimally for these activities, revenue and hours of recording sessions.
Nickelodeon, of course, is saying that the claim is baseless and that she was compensated fully for her services. Sanchez, according to Nickelodeon and Viacom, made over $300,000 while working as Dora and had a well-negotiated contract and lived a lavish lifestyle while being employed with them. The network claims the contract contained an option to renew could, allowing them terminate her. Sanchez avers that she was fired because she tried to renegotiate a better deal, which she claims Nickelodeon called unfair.
After the complaint was issued, Sanchez’ lawyer recently tried setting a deadline for Nickelodeon to offer a reasonable settlement offer, claiming that if they did not, Sanchez would grant media interviews and damning evidence towards the network. Nickelodeon didn’t bite, stating that there is nothing to hide and Sanchez is being used as a pawn to extort the company and further a groundless claim initiated by her parents.
Current laws protecting child performers are still emerging. They stem from the ‘Coogan Law’ where a young child actor saw his earnings diminish, as under law his wages went solely to his parents. Massachusetts has one of the most thorough child performer statutes, yet there are still holes, which may benefit companies and parents. These laws have been enacted to protect a child’s assets as well as protect companies from disaffirmance.
Under basic contract law, a minor cannot lawfully enter into a contract because of the law of nonage. Most companies enter the contract with the adult or guardian to shield them from disaffirmance. Disaffirmance allows a minor, if timely, to void any contract made because the contract was voidable due to the person’s status as a minor. This however, can lead to one-sided situations, as in Sanchez’, along with the children’s parents and guardians taking advantage, both monetarily and physically, of the child performer.
Child performer statutes allow courts to affirm contracts made with minors to protect their income until they reach a certain age, provide for unreasonable and time consuming contracts and also shields companies from disaffirmance. Problems arise, though, because in most states that have enacted these laws, affirmance is only voluntary and usually initiated by the company. As is the case here, the contract was entered into under New York law, therefore it was not required to be affirmed as it also included the parents as co-signers and consenting parties to the deal. This gives the parents the ability to continue to profit off their children, companies to offer one-sided, take-it-or-leave it deals, and children ultimately left with minimal say and little remedy.
The sad reality is that it is a buyer’s market when it comes to these child actors due to the lack of openings and changing landscape. It is often the parent who pushes these children and they are unwary of repercussions of entering into these deals without lawyer review, as they are usually just thinking about the dollar signs. While this may or may not be the case here, absent uniform regulations or state laws, companies can still take advantage of child actors and parents, and parents can still take advantage of their children’s talent. Or, as Nickelodeon claims, former employees or parents of these employees can possibly exploit them for personal financial gain. However, sometimes these suits may be for the better when the child’s best interests, professionally and pecuniary, are in mind.
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