Disney CEO apologizes after California school charged $250 licensing for showing Lion King at event

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Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger has apologized to a California school that was charged a $250 licensing fee after showing the company’s 2019 remake of ‘The Lion King’ during a fundraiser.

Emerson Elementary in Berkeley, California, was asked to pay the fee on January 30, after its PTA group failed to obtain a screening license prior to screening the movie at the event, which was thrown in November 2019.   

News that Disney had tried to recoup money from the PTA group – which claimed to have raised only $800 at the event – sparked outrage on social media. 

On Thursday, Disney CEO Bob Iger tweeted an apology to the school on behalf of the company.  

‘Our company @WaltDisneyCo apologizes to the Emerson Elementary School PTA and I will personally donate to their fund raising initiative,’ Iger wrote.  

Berkeleyside reported that on Wednesday, the day before Iger’s tweet, an executive at SWANK Motion Pictures Inc., which enforces copyrights for Disney and other movie studios, emailed the school, telling them that ‘Disney has instructed us to not pursue the fee for this situation.’

The executive also wrote: ‘While we, and the Studios we represent, take unauthorized works seriously, we understand that this situation, done in error, was not a malicious act.’ 

According to copyright law, a licensing fee must be paid any time there’s a public performance – meaning outside a private home – of a movie, regardless if admission was charged. 

Social media denizens applauded Iger’s apology, but also questioned whether this was setting a precedent for other organizations to avoid paying licensing fees when screening Disney movies at fundraising events.  

The brouhaha over the PTA’s screening of The Lion King started after an employee at Disney’s licensing agent, Movie Licensing USA, sent an email to Emerson Elementary notifying them that they needed to pay a licensing fee for having screened the movie publicly. 

Movie Licensing USA is a division of SWANK Motion Pictures Inc. 

‘Anytime movies are shown without the proper license, copyright law is violated and the entity showing the movie can be fined by the studios,’ noted the email, a portion of which was tweeted out by irate school parent and Berkeley City Councilmember, Lori Droste on January 31.    

Punishment for violating this copyright can include fines of up to $250,000 or as many as five years in jail. 

The $250 bill that was sent to Emerson Elementary was meant to cover the one-time showing fee that the Emerson Dad’s Group – which threw the November event – was supposed to have obtained in order to legally show the movie at the fundraiser.   

PTA president David Rose told KPIX that one of the dads in the group had bought the movie at Walmart and ‘we just basically threw it on while the kids were playing in the auditorium.’

The parents’ night out fundraiser had a $15 per child admission fee – although no child would be turned away if parents couldn’t pay that amount.

The money would benefit the PTA’s programs. In exchange, children were looked after for two hours and given pizza and healthy snacks. 

Rose said that ‘The event made $800, so if we have to fork over a third of it to Disney, so be it. You know, lesson learned.’ 

Droste took to Twitter the day after the letter was sent to vent her anger over the situation.  

‘Who wants to hear an unbelievable story about how Disney is essentially fining Berkeley’s Emerson Elementary School PTA $250 while reaping millions of dollars through a corporate loophole that has decimated public schools across California?’ she tweeted. 

‘As I was dropping the kids off at the school this morning the PTA was freaking out over a letter they received from Disney’s licensing demanding money. Mind you, they wanted pretty much what they had raised that evening,’ she added. 

Droste went on to write: ‘Now I can imagine some of you may say there are legitimate concerns with copyright and PTA made a mistake. Sure, I get that but coming after an elementary school? Really?? Disney wants $250 when we are struggling to pay our teachers and spending per pupil is laughable?’ 

Droste told KPIX that the the fundraiser was meant to help pay for teachers and vital services at the school. 

‘Here you have a company that makes so much money and we have schools that are struggling so much,’ she said. ‘What I thought about was just the irony of paying a multi-billion dollar company essentially ask a school to pay up.’

It’s unclear how Movie Licensing USA discovered that the PTA group had shown The Lion King at the event, although the fundraiser was publicly listed on an event booking website.

The licensing group told Berkeleyside that single-use permits cost $250, while schools can pay $536 for annual licenses. 

Rose told the news station that the PTA group will pay the $250 licensing fee and aim to recoup that amount through future donations. 

Reaction on social media was mixed, with a number of parents and artists pointing out that the school should have known about the licensing fee and is responsible for paying for it. 

DailyMail.com has reached out to Disney for comment. 

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