The dustup over the rights to a film title has turned into a public squabble between Harvey Weinstein and Warner Bros.
Disputed is the claim to the title “The Butler,” which the Weinstein Co. has promoted as the name of an upcoming drama about a White House butler. An arbitrator last week ruled Warner Bros. has the right to “The Butler,” having released a so-named silent short in 1916. The Weinstein Co. is appealing the decision.
Weinstein took to “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday to claim Warner Bros. has an “ulterior motive” in refusing to allow use of the title. He claimed that Warner Bros.’ argument is really over rights to “The Hobbit,” of which he shares a part in the profits having developed the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy while running Miramax. Warner Bros. has denied “The Hobbit,” the three-part series Warner Bros. is releasing, has any connection to the dispute over “The Butler.”
The film, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forrest Whitaker, is to be released Aug. 16. It’s based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, whose service extended through decades of U.S. presidents.
Said Weinstein: “If we run ads with The Butler, the MPAA is imposing $25,000 a day in penalties. We have to pull 5,000 trailers from the theaters, we have to pull our website down, all of which we complied with.”
Warner Bros. issued a statement claiming Weinstein was using the matter to publicize his film “by disseminating deliberate misinformation.” The studio claims the Weinstein Co. “is following an oft-trodden path of creating ‘well-publicized controversies’ in order to promote their films by disseminating deliberate misinformation about the true nature of this dispute.
“The Weinsteins are sophisticated experts in this arena and three neutral arbitrators have penalized them for blatantly disregarding MPAA rules. It goes without saying that Warner Bros. has no issue with Lee Daniels’ film (never has) and fully supports the artistic goals of the filmmakers. The Weinsteins’ suggestions to the contrary are deeply offensive and untrue.”
A certain number of Hollywood titles are protected by the Title Registration Bureau, of which the Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros. voluntarily subscribe to, agreeing to be bound by its rules to prevent public confusion over similarly titled films. The registry, a division of the Motion Picture Association of America, mediates any disputes, which are usually resolved quietly.
Weinstein has taken advantage of such spats before for the generated publicity. Last year, he launched a public attack against the MPAA over its initial R rating (due to harsh language) for the anti-bullying documentary “Bully.” After the film was initially released unrated, it was edited slightly and the MPAA changed the rating to PG-13.
On “CBS This Morning,” MPAA chairman Chris Dodd urged cooler heads to prevail, telling both sides: “Sit down and work it out. This is silly.”