Who knew the title of a movie could cause such controversy? As its release date approaches and appeals and arbitration arguments are flying, The Weinstein Company (TWC) is facing a media and marketing nightmare over its movie, which we will refer to here as the TMPKATB (The Movie Previously Known as ‘The Butler’). The story of an African American servant working in the White House, it’s the latest from ‘Precious’ director Lee Daniels and features Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as the fictional Cecil Gaines (who is based on Eugene Allen, who worked for eight different Presidents from 1952 to 1986). There’s also a compelling cast of acting oddities, including Oprah, Vanessa Redgrave, and Mariah Carey. We even get Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower and John Cusack as…Richard Nixon?
Everything seemed fine with the upcoming Oscar bait (set to hit theaters on August 16) when Warner Brothers balked at the use of the title, ‘The Butler.’ You see, sitting in a vault somewhere on the studios massive backlot is a 1916 silent short subject with the same name, and thus an MPAA mandated pissing match began. Weinstein thought it silly that their competitor would reject their use of the name. Warners, for their part, claims a long history of abuse by the independent production house, arguing that TWC chief Harvey Weinstein wants “exceptions” carved out of the existing laws (apparently, the ratings board also regulates movie titles, making sure we don’t have dozens of ‘Donnie Darko’s littering the local Cineplex).
While it seems slightly surreal that one company can keep another from using something as basic as ‘The Butler,’ there’s more to the story than a mere commercial conflict. Warners sued and won in arbitration. Weinstein claimed fouled and went on one of his typical tacky PR campaigns. Now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Warners is out to make a point of principle. It wants to prove a pattern with Weinstein, citing that the title ‘Scream’ was used without permission (and was continually used despite monetary sanctions each time), as well as similar situations involving ‘El Postino’ and ‘Control.’ In a letter, reprinted in full in the Reporter‘s piece, Warner’s attorney John W. Spiegel argues that “TWC has flouted those same rules if and when they have happened to conflict with TWC’s interests,” claiming a damning level of hypocrisy.
Cutting to the chase, it appears that negotiations over a wholly separate issue between the studios forced Warners to cry foul over ‘The Butler.’ In fact, the movers and shakers in Hollywood often grant waivers to each other (that would explain the multiple ‘Bad Boys’, ‘Gladiator’s, and ‘Twilight’s). It also looks like Weinstein will have to rename TMPKATB (oddly enough, Warners has no objection to a proposed change – ‘Lee Daniel’s The Butler’ – that the Weinsteins actually got approved, and then abandoned for some reason). Of course, all this publicity raises the profile of a picture that was already angling itself for an end of the year run. If anyone can turn this negative into a positive, it’s Weinstein.