The Peanuts Movie: Keeping It in the Schulz Family

“At least let’s do one right.” The Peanuts Movie is a Schulz family affair. Here’s how they fight to keep Peanuts their own…

Alongside their obvious pride, there’s a hint of resignation in the way Craig and Jeannie Schulz talk about their family’s stewardship of Peanuts, the life work of father and husband Charles M. Schulz. It’s the sense that one day, inevitably, the characters will slide out of their grasp and into the hands of rapacious corporate executives. You could liken the family’s situation to that of the modern-day English aristocrat, overseeing an historic country pile in the knowledge that a horde of developers wanting to turn it all into luxury flats and a holistic health spa are beating a path to their door.

Like Disney and Henson, the Schulz name is woven into the fabric of US popular culture. After decades of comic strips, TV specials and merchandise, Snoopy and Charlie Brown sit next to Mickey and Kermit in America’s childhood hall of fame. Simply put, the Peanuts characters are loved with the kind of warmth and affection that money can’t buy. Which, as you can imagine, has led to countless attempts to do just that.

That’s why it was crucial in the family’s eyes, after Charles Schulz’s death in 2000, to gain a share of creative control over Peanuts. Schulz had signed over the rights to his characters as part of his original publishing deal in 1950 and though richly rewarded for it, never owned part of the property he created. In the words of Jeannie, his widow and President of the Board of Directors at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, the Schulz family needed to get “skin in the game.”

That was achieved in 2010, when it was announced that the Peanuts brand had been sold by its original publishing companies to a brand management group for $175 million, a deal that included the transfer of twenty per cent ownership to the Schulz family.

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“We have a little bit of creative control,” Craig Schulz told us on a June visit to the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. “And for the first time, we actually own part of the property, which my dad never did, so we have 20 percent now so at least we have some say in the process, which is nice.”

Nice is one word. Shrewd is another. Acquiring that size of share in the Peanuts brand is a vital step in protecting Peanuts’ future, as Jeannie Schulz explained, “Our little twenty per cent interest I think helps us in that battle, because who’s going to want to buy? Is Disney going to want to buy the property when we own twenty per cent and they have to deal with us? [Laughs] No! They don’t want to. So I think that has hope for staving off the big, corporate things for a long time.”

“Big, corporate things” are what Craig and Jeannie Schulz fear are on the horizon for Peanuts, a legitimate concern based on years of their own experience and from watching well-publicised struggles over creative and financial matters in the Disney and Henson families.

Jeannie Schulz is particularly keen to avoid the fragmentation and conflict seen elsewhere. “Am I right in saying that Jim Henson’s family now is doing two different things, his daughter is doing one thing and his son’s doing something else and someone else has bought the characters? This is what our part-ownership of the copyright helps with, the creative control.”

Craig Schulz agrees. “For the children,” he adds, “we saw [our father] growing up, we saw what he did and everything we have is because of him so we take great respect in that. We take great pride in that and we would hate to see that get dropped off and end up being like the Disney family, where all of a sudden they’re just pushed out to the side and someone else—these corporate executives—come in and rotate out every five years and someone has a great idea, ‘Let’s make this Peanuts movie and we’ll make Snoopy do all these stupid things!’ You know that somewhere down the road that might happen, but we will fight that battle as long as we can.”

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The Schulz family solution to someone making Snoopy do stupid things in a Peanuts movie was to protect the family beagle by writing the film themselves. Back in 2005, Craig Schulz began work on a new Peanuts TV special. He showed the screenplay to his screenwriter son, Bryan and his writing partner Cornelius Uliano, who both came on board to expand the idea into a full-length feature.

A side-effect of writing the screenplay, Craig told us, was the esteem in which his son Bryan held his grandfather. “I think he’s going to respect his legacy much more than he did before he started the process,” he said. “When you’re surrounded by all these people that really cherish this property and how much they embrace it, you realize there’s a lot of responsibility in doing this movie, everybody else is expecting a lot out of you and you don’t want to let them down—family members and the public, Peanuts fans, everybody…”

The fans in particular, are especially demanding. “Peanuts fans are so observant,” explained Craig. “They’re fanatical, is all I can say!” To illustrate, he cites an occasion when, for ad reasons, ABC cut a few minutes from the original length of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and fans, to use his words, “revolted! You can’t change anything in the Peanuts universe without somebody noticing!”

Image: Jeannie Schulz’s custom-decorated Chevrolet, parked at the Charles M. Schulz Museum, June 2015.

The Schulz family showed a similar level of scrutiny when it came to the movie script. “We showed it to the family with the realisation that eventually, someone would try to make a Peanuts film that we really couldn’t control,” said Craig. “Because after Peanuts got sold to another company, I personally knew that somewhere down the road, someone was going to make a movie and I figured, at least let’s do one right, one that is on track with what my dad had created and was going to be true and honest to Peanuts, and that was our goal from the outset.”

Jeannie Schulz found herself in agreement. “I felt the way Craig felt, that inevitably, we’re going to get pushed one way or the other to do a film and even though we would have creative control by the contract, with movies, it’s very difficult.”

“We had done some additional half-hour shows after Sparky died,” Jeannie continues, “I think we did four maybe, but even though they were taken from the strip, we weren’t that happy with them because they lacked a spark. So after that played out and it didn’t seem as though we were going to get any really robust, enchanting half-hours and maybe the half-hours had run themselves out anyway, a movie seemed inevitable. So in my mind I sort of crossed my fingers and hoped that we could control it in a way that would help.”

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To achieve that control, the Schulzes stipulated in contract that should a sequel arrive, the current writing team will be the only ones to script it. “I’ve already had agents and Fox talking to me about the sequel,” confirmed Craig. “The movie was done as a one-movie deal, when I signed the contract originally, I’d purposely made it a one-movie deal because I didn’t want to get locked into having somebody come in. We also put in the contract that there will be nobody else who’ll write a movie other than the writing team that did this film.

Does Craig see a sequel to The Peanuts Movie as the logical next step? “I never say never,” he told us, “because I said we’d never make a film and here we are making a film!”

Another way to keep the film in the family’s grasp was to select an animation studio they trusted to share their goal of being true and honest to Peanuts. “From the family’s viewpoint,” Craig says, “people have been coming to us with the idea of doing a movie for years and years and we’ve always said from the beginning that money is not in the equation for us, for us, it’s all about, are we going to be authentic to the comic strip and to my dad’s work?”

And so the search began for a studio to collaborate with on the picture.

“Brian and Neil [Cornelius Uliano] had done the tour of LA,” explains Craig, “they’d been to every single studio, they’d met every single head, they’d looked at all the animation departments and we knew there was really only one studio we were going to trust in this project, and that was Blue Sky.”

How Blue Sky (Ice Age, Epic, Rio, Horton Hears A Who!) convinced the Schulz family that they were the ones to make the Peanuts movie is another story…

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