You’d almost think it was a serious civil rights dispute, not a scuffle between two Hollywood studios. This week Harvey Weinstein, the film producer, recruited civil rights leaders, including the Rev Jesse Jackson, to back him in a brawl with Warner Bros over the right to name his next release The Butler.
On Friday, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ruled that the Weinstein company could use one of two alternative titles – “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, or “The White House Butler” – for the feature, directed by Daniels, which is due for release in the US on 16 August. The dispute threatened the success of what the company’s lawyer describes as “a major civil rights film”.
Rev Jackson, along with the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, released a statement in support of Weinstein before the MPAA hearing. “We are all … hoping Warner Bros and the MPAA make the right decision on this important movie about civil rights,” it said.
The film is based on the life of Eugene Allen, an African-American butler who served eight presidents at the White House between 1952 and 1986, and lived to see Barack Obama elected in 2008. Forest Whitaker heads its all-star cast, which also includes Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams as President Eisenhower, and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as the Reagans.
The problem? A rarely seen Warner Bros silent short, also called The Butler, made in 1916. Though titles can’t be copyrighted, studios subscribe to the rules of the MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau. Its ruling states that Weinstein is “permanently prohibited” from using the title The Butler. The studio must also pay $500,000 in fines and up to $150,000 to Warner Bros in legal fees. If the name is changed to “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”, then the words “Lee Daniels” must be displayed in type at least 75 per cent as big as “Butler”.
As Weinstein wrote in the Huffington Post recently, recycled titles are nothing new. The producer claimed Warner Bros was simply holding his title to ransom, in return for the percentage of profits his company currently earns from the Hobbit franchise under an existing rights deal. The dispute, he said, was a “bullying tactic”.
His film’s marketing campaign has stalled during the row: its website was taken down and print ads cancelled, although trailers have still been running in cinemas. To aid his case, Weinstein even hired the super-lawyer David Boies, who recently helped to overturn California’s gay marriage ban – a civil rights milestone.
The producer claimed the new ruling as a victory, saying he was “thrilled” by the MPAA’s decision. "Now we can focus on the importance of Lee Daniels' film, the amazing performances by Forest, Oprah and the incredible cast who spent countless months bringing this story about American history and civil rights to screen," Weinstein said.
Weinstein is no stranger to controversy, nor to courting publicity by unconventional means, and the dispute has grabbed more headlines than the movie itself, which is supposedly an Oscar hopeful. Besides, said Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards prediction website GoldDerby.com, a name-change might not be such a bad thing.
“The Butler is a bland title,” he said. “This could force them to come up with something more sexy that would, in fact, boost its Oscar prospects.”