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Contractual Obligation Project

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"Two Words: contractually obligated!"

Works creators say they did mainly to fulfill a contractual obligation.

Similar to Money, Dear Boy except for the creator's goal in many instances is to avoid losing money as a result of getting sued for breach of contract, incurring legal expenses, and (in the worst-case scenario) having to pay damages.

For a creator involved in a contractual obligation project, the obligation aspect looms over everything. A typical example is when there's a final project left in a long-term agreement between parties whose relationship has soured. The enthusiasm for this last project may be low since at least one party just wants to get it over with and end the deal. Other times, the Contractual Obligation Project may be one a creator will do just so they can get to do another more enticing project that's also part of the deal. This does not mean a Contractual Obligation Project is all but guaranteed of being a dud. There are times when, in spite of everything, the final product will end up being financially successful, award-winning, and highly-regarded.


Note that this is mostly an American trope, due to the way in which Common Law works. Many other countries forbid forcing a person to work against their will unless the person who signed the contract also compromised in some way or another to work in that project. There are a few exceptions to this, especially when divorced people are involved.

Compare with Ashcan Copy, which is a project that is greenlit to avoid a penalty because the terms of a contract aren't being met.



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    Audio Plays 
  • Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album expressly invokes this trope: it contained a minimum of brand new material, and that was often deliberately thrown together and made to look slapdash and amateurish whilst still remaining funny. Most of the rest consists of off-cuts from film scripts, and reworkings of old sketches and songs that go back to the middle 1960s, and which were originally intended for radio and TV shows that preceded Python by some years. Some sketches had indeed already been performed on British radio and TV by other people.

    Comic Books 
  • An in-universe example in Transmetropolitan. Spider Jerusalem left the City, but is forced to return due to a two-book contract. He eventually declares that one of the books will be an Omnibus re-release of the columns he's written so far. And gets out of the second due to info-pollen induced dementia.

    Films — Animation 
  • For nearly 20 years, Walt Disney had a distribution deal with RKO. By the early-1950s, RKO was crumbling under the erratic leadership of Howard Hughes. In 1953, Disney had formed his own distribution company, Buena Vista, but was still obligated to deliver one more film to Hughes. As a result, Disney compiled segments from his earlier animated anthologies Make Mine Music! and Melody Time, to create Music Land (1955). This constituted a new film in RKO's eyes, and the deal ended with Music Land. Unsurprisingly, the film is an even bigger Old Shame for Disney than its other package movies; it never saw any theatrical reissues nor any home video releases and is not counted as part of the canon.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The poster-woman for why this occurs is Kim Basinger, who violated this trope by backing out of Boxing Helena - and was subsequently sued by Main Line Pictures for breach of contract, initially winning an $8.1 million judgment against the actress, though they later settled for roughly $3.8 million.
  • Even though the film ended up winning her an Academy Award (albeit due to a sympathy vote because she had nearly died of pneumonianote ), Elizabeth Taylor never liked BUtterfield 8 and only did the movie because it was required under her contract.
  • The Cat in the Hat is an example due to Mike Myers and Bo Welch being forced under threat of a lawsuitnote  to work on the movie.
  • The existence of Cutthroat Island had a lot to do with it being a Contractual Obligation Project for many of the people involved. The producers, for example, were obligated to make the film because the money had already been raised and star Geena Davis and director Renny Harlin were contractually tied to do it.
  • Kelly Clarkson pretty much said this for the execrable From Justin to Kelly – "Two Words: contractually obligated!"
  • Jessica Chastain was given a starring role in Crimson Peak provided that she would also later appear in The Huntsman: Winter's War.
  • Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert thought It Happened One Night would flop and were only in the film to fulfill contractual obligations. Both would go on to win Oscars for the movie; as of 2019, the film is one of only three films to win the "Big Five" Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress).
  • The Beatles signed a contract with United Artists in late 1963 to make three movies, two of which were the very well-received A Hard Day's Night and Help!. The Fab Four was dissatisfied working on the latter film, however, so they agreed to have Yellow Submarine made as an easy way to fulfill their contract, since it's an animated movie Not Quite Starring them. On seeing the end result, however, the band actually ended up enjoying it more than they expected. Many fans have assumed that the cartoon did not satisfy the contract, but Let It Be, also released by United Artists, was not part of the original three-picture deal.
  • Sylvester Stallone starred in Over the Top purely to fulfill his contract with Cannon Films.
  • Paul Newman agreed to star in When Time Ran Out... out of contractual obligation and later called it the worst film he ever did. On the bright side, much of Newman's salary from the movie provided the seed money to begin his successful charity, Newman's Own.
  • Sam Raimi was obligated to make Spider-Man 3 and to add Gwen Stacy as a love interest and Venom as the main antagonist, despite stating that he doesn't like the latter character. Originally the main antagonists were Sandman and Harry Osborn as the new Green Goblin. Venom and Gwen were added at the insistence of Avi Arad and the producers (much like an contractual obligation), making the movie messy and the reason why it's the lowest point of the first Spider-Man trilogy. After those problems, Raimi left the studios, so the reboot The Amazing Spider-Man was made later.
  • Natalie Portman signed onto the first Thor because she wanted to work with Kenneth Branagh. She also signed under the understanding that Patty Jenkins note was to direct the sequel that ended up being called The Dark World. Jenkins ended up leaving the project a few months after she officially signed on for Creative Differences and Portman tried to leave with her. She would later back down once she realized that there was no way out of her two film contract to avoid litigation from Disney’s Army of Lawyers. She'd eventually make peace with Marvel, to the point that her promotion to Goddess of Thunder is set for Thor Love And Thunder.
  • Whoopi Goldberg reluctantly did Theodore Rex to fulfill a contractual obligation and avoid paying damages from a lawsuit by the film's producers. Whoopi Goldberg had learned the lesson of just biting the bullet and starring in a flop from Kim Basinger, who was driven into bankruptcy when she tried to defy this trope by refusing to star in Boxing Helena.
  • Channing Tatum's appearances in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and G.I. Joe: Retaliation were the result of a deal he made with Paramount and the studio threatened him with a lawsuit if he didn't honor the agreement. He picked the G.I. Joe franchise in the hopes that it would be a fun experience but has had very few nice things to say about the films once he was no longer obligated to promote them.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis was forced to star in Halloween: Resurrection - a critically savaged sequel to Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later. The promotional team also circulated a lie that Jamie was only meant to have a 30-second cameo but "liked the script so much" she had her role expanded.
  • Emily Blunt had to star in Gulliver's Travels (2010) as a result of starring in The Devil Wears Prada. Because of the scheduling conflict, she had to turn down the role of Black Widow in Iron Man 2.
  • Back in the 1930s Chinese-American star Anna May Wong was getting frustrated at playing Dragon Lady parts and exotic supporting roles. She agreed to do one more - playing the daughter of Fu Manchu in Daughter of the Dragon - so she could star in the Marlene Dietrich movie Shanghai Express, getting a more interesting part. Daughter of the Dragon marked the last time she ever played a Dragon Lady.
  • Val Kilmer didn't want to be in Top Gun, but was contractually obliged. He also tried to drop out of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) due to his impending divorce but was contractually obliged.
  • Both Otto Preminger and Marilyn Monroe were forced to do the 1954 western River of No Return against their will, due to contractual obligations. They both expressed their frustration over the script which they considered below par. However, the film was a box office hit upon its release and remains a popular classic western.
  • Edward Norton made it clear that his participation in The Italian Job (2003) is a result of contractual obligation, not choice. He signed a three-movie deal with Paramount, of which Primal Fear, his breakthrough movie, was the first. He kept dismissing scripts for the other two (resulting in the contract getting extended from the intended timeline of contract though Norton now only had to do one extra film), until Paramount coerced him into accepting a role in this film. Norton did not hide his misery on the set, clashing with the crew throughout it, and when the producer handed out gifts to the cast over the movie's surprisingly strong box office performance, Norton returned the gift with a note stating "Give this to someone you actually like—or someone who actually likes you." He also wasn't happy at how the conditions of the deal meant that he was paid a fraction of what he'd have earned on any other film at that time in his career.
  • John Wayne starred in The Conqueror to close out his contract with RKO.
  • Geneviève Bujold made Earthquake and Swashbuckler purely to fill out her contract with Universal Studios.
  • Eric Bress and J Mackeye Gruber wrote the script for Final Destination 2 in order to be allowed to direct The Butterfly Effect.
  • Christopher Lambert was so disgusted with the re-written script for Highlander II: The Quickening that he wanted to drop out of the film. Contractual obligations forced him to finish it.
  • Roy Scheider did not originally want to appear in Jaws 2, but had recently left the production of The Deer Hunter, which led to conflicts with Universal Pictures to whom he was locked into a multi-film contract with. The studio agreed to forgive his leaving The Deer Hunter if he did Jaws 2, which they would count as the two remaining films of his contract with them. Scheider agreed to the terms, but was resentful of his involvement from the onset and clashed frequently with director Jeannot Szwarc.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger only agreed to star in Raw Deal after much haggling in exchange for dissolving his multi-picture agreement with Dino De Laurentiis. He had one picture left with the producer and was actually very interested in doing Total Recall (1990), but De Laurentiis objected, feeling that he was not suitable for the lead role of Quaid. Instead, Patrick Swayze was already cast before the bankruptcy.
  • Jackie Chan appeared in Cannonball Run II for this very reason.
  • Natalie Wood didn't want to be in The Great Race, but Warner Bros. talked her into it. Wood was unhappy with her career and her personal life, having recently divorced from Robert Wagner in April 1962. Warner asked Tony Curtis if he would give a percentage of his film royalties to Wood, as an enticement, but Curtis refused. He said, "I couldn't give her anything to make her want to do the movie." Instead of more money, Warner promised Wood that if she completed The Great Race, she could star in Inside Daisy Clover, a role she greatly wished to have. Wood agreed, thinking that filming would be brief on Edwards' movie.
  • Gary Cooper agreed to star in The Pride of the Yankees despite not being a baseball fan, as he owed one to Samuel Goldwyn.
  • John Candy didn't want to make Wagons East, but was contractually obliged. Sadly, this turned out to be his final film, as he died during production.
  • Michael Fassbender agreed to star in The Counselor as part of a two-picture deal. The next film would not be a sequel; instead, the studio would fund Assassin's Creed, which was a passion project of his.
  • Following the failure via Executive Meddling of his film The Road Back acclaimed director James Whale ran out his contract at Universal with a string of B movies. Other than The Man In The Iron Mask six of his last seven films were critical and commercial failures.
  • Chris Farley and David Spade were both signed to a two film deal by Paramount. Black Sheep (1996) was rushed into production because they wanted to capitalize on the success of Tommy Boy before the contracts expired.
  • Caroline Munro appeared in Dracula A.D. 1972 and Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter as part of her deal with Hammer.
  • George Lazenby appeared in three films for Golden Harvest - Stoner, The Man from Hong Kong and The Queen's Ransom.
  • Alan Ladd signed a three-picture deal with Albert R. Broccoli's Warwick films. The results were The Red Beret, Hell Below Zero and The Black Knight.

    Live-Action TV 
  • This trope is invoked in-universe in the final episode of 30 Rock when, after the show-within-the-show "TGS" is canceled, another episode has to be produced in order to avoid having to give Tracy a $30 million payout.
  • Early in his career, Lenny Henry's first manager gave him the opportunity to perform as part of the Luff-produced touring stage version of The Black And White Minstrel Show, which in retrospect has widely been seen as an embarrassment and one of the most racist shows in British history. In July 2009, he stated he was contractually obliged to perform and regretted his part in the show, telling The Times in 2015 that his appearance on the show led to a profound "wormhole of depression", and regretted his family not intervening to prevent him from continuing in the show.
  • Dollhouse was created in order to finish Eliza Dushku's contract with Fox.
  • When Patrick Duffy returned to Dallas in 1986, he stipulated in his contract that once the series ended, series producer Lorimar would be obligated to cast him in another show. Dallas ended in 1991, and Lorimar fulfilled the contract by casting Duffy as the patriarch on Step by Step.
  • Paul Lynde's appearances on Donny and Marie were to fulfill his contract with ABC regarding his Halloween special.
  • The series Helstrom was commisioned by Marvel Television for Hulu as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in a supernatural horror subfranchise titled Adventure Into Fear with a standalone Ghost Rider series (with Gabriel Luna reprising his role) also being developed with many other horror characters also having planned adaptations. However, following a corporate restructuring that had MCU Producer Kevin Feige gaining complete oversight over the Television side of the MCU, the subfranchise was aborted with all the shows cancelled except Helstrom due to being too far in development, and was allowed to finish production but also declared non-canonical to the MCU in order to fulfil their contractual obligations to the parties involved.

  • Musicians frequently release Cover Albums, Christmas Albums, Live Albums, Greatest Hits Albums, or Remix Albums as a quick, easy way to fulfill a contract.
  • When Marvin Gaye got divorced in 1977, he agreed to give his ex-wife half the proceeds from his next album. The result was Here, My Dear, which was panned by critics and fans alike (although critics praised it in retrospect). Rumors that he intentionally made a bad album that wouldn't sell soon arose; other accounts suggest that she was going to get the money regardless, possibly making this an aversion.
  • Axis: Bold as Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience was a contractual obligation album because the Experience was required to release two albums in 1967. Despite this, it is regarded as a classic and was listed at #83 in Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
  • Part of the reason for Band of Gypsys being produced was to settle a contract dispute with Ed Chalpin, who managed Hendrix when the guitarist was a member of R&B band Curtis Knight & The Squires and who had been reissuing Knight/Squires albums on Capitol Records with misleading covers publicizing Jimi's involvement with them to compete with/capitalize on Hendrix' success years later.
  • After the death of Van Morrison's producer Bert Berns, Morrison was still contracted for an album to his Bang Records company, owned by Berns' widow Ilena, with whom Morrison didn't get along. To get out of his contract, Morrison recorded an album worth of desultory, sometimes intentionally offensive "songs" such as "Ring Worm", "Here Comes Dumb George", and "Blowin' Your Nose". They sometimes get released as "rarities" to hoodwink completists.
  • Lord Melody (a calypso singer) released two in 1962/1963 to get out of his contract with Cook Records (which was about to fold). These were Lord Melody 1962 (US) / More Calypsoes By Lord Melody (Trinidad) (largely rerecorded early 50s material and singles aimed at tourists) and Caribbean Limbo Music (an album of Melody and a man named Sam discussing limbo moves over jazz instrumentals from Cook's back catalog). In Trinidad, 1962 was Melody's poorest selling release, though it was fairly successful in the US due to his cover of "Shame And Scandal" (Wau Wau).
  • The Dingees admitted that, after writing enough songs for their fourth album, The Rebel Soul Sound System, they'd planned to stick in a bunch of dub remixes as Album Filler to extend the whole thing to double-album length—and thus fulfill their five-album contract with their label. Ironically, the label dropped them before they could record any of it, and The Rebel Soul Sound System wound up being the band's zero-budget passion project instead of a contractual obligation.
  • Led Zeppelin began and ended this way:
    • When The Yardbirds broke up in 1968, Jimmy Page wound up holding the bag on the band's remaining contractually obligated album. He got three other musicians he knew of together to form, and briefly tour, as the New Yardbirds. By the time they released the album, they'd changed their name and the rest is history ...
    • ... until it came to an end a decade later. They were contractually obligated for one more album after the death of drummer John Bonham, but were unwilling to continue without him, and so released Coda, an album made up entirely of unreleased songs, mostly from In Through The Out Door. It's generally considered to be their worst album.
  • By 1977 the members of Emerson, Lake & Palmer were pretty much no longer on speaking terms. They had to record one more album before they were released by their label, though, and the result, Love Beach, is regarded as their worst.
  • Ozzy Osbourne never made any secret of disliking the 1982 Speak of the Devil double live album that consists mostly of his versions of Black Sabbath songs, to the point that after it went out of print in 2000 he stopped listing it on his website, since it was not a good time in his life and he did it purely for contractual reasons.note 
  • Tupac Shakur signed a three-album deal with Death Row Records in exchange for them bailing him out of prison. All Eyez on Me was released as a double album, which was followed by The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory.
  • When Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons left Vee-Jay Records for Philips Records following a lawsuit over unpaid royalties, they were obligated as part of the settlement to deliver one final album for Vee-Jay. They created a "live" album by taking rehearsal recordings and overdubbing crowd noises. Said album mostly featured standards done in a traditional style incongruous with the group's usual sound, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to make the album flop, although it did feature a song done in their usual style ("Little Boy [in Grown up Clothes]", which saw a single release) and a comedy routine which featured excerpts of "Sherry" ("How Do You Make a Hit Song?").
  • Michael Jackson's Number Ones compilation album was released solely so that Jackson could fulfill his contract with Sony Music.
  • Andrew Eldritch of The Sisters of Mercy, in order to dissolve his Warner contract, released a "techno without drums" album under a quasi-side project called SSV-NSMABAAOTWMODAACOTIATW, short for Screw Shareholder Value - Not So Much A Band As Another Opportunity To Waste Money On Drugs And Ammunition courtesy Of The Idiots At Time Warner.

    Video Games 
  • thatgamecompany made a three-game deal with Sony in order to put themselves on the map of the video game industry. The results were flOw, Flower, and Journey, and the aforementioned deal is the sole reason why they remained Sony console-exclusives for so long. Only in 2019 was Flower put for sale on the Epic Games Store, and Journey marked there as "coming soon".
  • During the 2010s, Sega signed a deal with Nintendo to make three Sonic games for them: Of which came Sonic Lost World, Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Winter Games... and Sonic Boom. While the former two had smooth enough developments, the third was outsourced to another company called Big Red Button whose engine wasn't compatible with the Wii U system. Rather than scrap the project and do something else, Sega pretty much forced the company into completing the game to fulfill their obligation to Nintendo. The fact that the game was Big Red Button's first (and at the current, only) game which would be savaged by critics and games didn't help matters.
  • Aliens: Colonial Marines was a game that 20th Century Fox and later Sega always wanted to do, an Action-Horror First-Person Shooter set after the events of Aliens and Alien³. However, they would be unable to do it due to bad luck and incompetence. Eventually, Sega would hire Gearbox Software to make their own version, but accusations of Gearbox taking money away to work on their own projects led to Sega canceling the game, only to give it back to Gearbox after the success of Borderlands 1 with the caveat of a 2012 release. However, Gearbox was in the middle of developing Borderlands 2 and Duke Nukem Forever when they accepted to develop Colonial Marines, and feeling that Borderlands 2 was a more important game (since it was their IP), decided to outsource the development of A:CM to TimeGate Studios, who were unable to make a passable build by the time BL2 was released due to Executive Meddling from both Gearbox and Sega. Gearbox's leadership went into panic mode as Sega would sue them for failing to release the game on time as promised, and decided to rebuild the game almost from scratch to get the game into stores just before the end of Sega's fiscal year in March 2013. The game would be released to dismal reviews but passable sales and Sega would cut ties with Gearbox for all the Troubled Production the game suffered through.
  • The infamous ZX Spectrum game SQIJ was the result of a contract between its creator Jason Kendall (then 15 years old) and publisher The Power House. After a falling-out, he tried to get out of the contract by hastily slapping together some code that just barely qualified as a game, figuring the result would be so obviously unpublishable that they'd just throw it out. Then they went and published it anyway.
  • Sega forced Treasure to make McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure in exchange for greenlighting their passion project, Gunstar Heroes.

    Western Animation 
  • Subverted in regards to Butch Hartman who, rather than being under contract to make another cartoon following The Fairly Oddparents, had heard that Nickelodeon was looking for a boys' action cartoon and willingly pitched his idea for Danny Phantom.
  • In the Family Guy parody of Return of the Jedi, the Opening Crawl veers off into a rant about how they're tired of parodying Star Wars, says that Fox made them produce it, lapses into a non sequitur about raccoons, and finally asks the audience to lower their expectations for the episode. And no, that rant wasn't a joke on their part, they really meant it.
  • The three The Fox and the Crow cartoons produced by UPA were a contractual obligation for their distribution contract with Columbia Pictures. UPA wanted to do cartoons that steered away from the cliches of the day, such as the use of Funny Animals and Slapstick, both of which the Fox and Crow cartoons exemplified in spades. The cartoons were actually well-received (two were nominated for Academy Awards), which gave UPA free rein to make their own films with their own characters.
  • An in-universe example occurs in the Rocko's Modern Life episode "Wacky Delly" when Rachel (then known as Ralph) Bighead ends production on her show The Fatheads to create her artistic masterpiece. However, her network contract states that she has to make one more show so, to get it over with, Rachel hires Rocko, Heffer, and Filburt to make a pilot for the new show, hoping it will be bad enough to get the executives to cancel her contract. Unfortunately, they love Wacky Delly and the show becomes a massive hit. Ironically when she decides to put some effort into it, the network instantly cancels the show.
  • VeggieTales: Invoked in a song that was so pointless, Larry's voice actor supposedly refused to finish it (though this was probably written-in meta-humor). "The Song Under the Credits" was its name, and in the middle of a chorus of "Hey hey ho-ho-ho-ho" the actor left, while the other actors chewed him out for leaving, telling him "We have contractual obligations to finish this song!"


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