Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

What is going on with whatever The Butler is now called?

Warners won’t let the Weinsteins call Lee Daniels’s new flick The Butler. Why, exactly?

Wed, Jul 10, 2013, 22:39


As you may have read in our print version, two sets of brothers — one notional, the other fleshily actual — are currently engaged in a most peculiar battle over titles. Lee Daniels’s The Butler (or whatever) probably doesn’t need publicity. As we noted some months ago, Robin Williams plays Dwight D Eisenhower, Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, John Cusack plays Richard Nixon and Uncle Tom Cobley plays everybody else. This weird movie — concerning a butler who served the White House for decades — was always going to stir up a fair degree of chatter.

Anyway, the dispute between the (nominal) brothers Warner and (all too real) brothers Weinstein goes something like this. A few weeks ago Warners announced that, having released a film called The Butler in 1919, they still owned the title and they were jolly well going to hold on to it. The Weinsteins, producers of Daniels’s film, would have to start looking for a new name for their movie. The dispute went before the Motion Picture Association of America and that body declared in favour of Warners.  It hardly needs to be said that the Queens bruisers weren’t going to take any of this lying down. Fearsome lawyer David Boies was hired and Harvey was soon sopping up space on morning television. Revelations were soon, well, revealing themselves.

“I was asked by two execs at Warner Brothers, which I’m happy to testify to, that if I gave them back the rights to The Hobbit they would drop the claim,” Weinstein said. “For a 1916 short? This was used as a bullying tactic. I think this is 100%. This was the big guy trying to hit the small guy.”

Let’s leave aside the notion of Harvey being “the small guy” — unsustainable either literally or figuratively — and attempt to work out what’s going on here. The Weinsteins do, indeed, retain an interest in any further exploitation of J R R Tolkien’s book. Miramax, the boys’ first company, dallied with the project before it passed to New Line and, ultimately, Warners. Can this really be the reason behind it all? It sounds like a conspiracy theory. On the other hand, why the hell would Warners care about somebody using a title they haven’t exploited for close to a century? It’s not as if the new film will profit from promotional work done by the company in the years after the first World War. It’s worth quoting the larger studio’s response fully. Here it is:

“The Weinstein Company, as the New York Times has noted, is following an oft-trodden path of creating ‘well-publicised 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 penalised 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 film-makers. The Weinsteins’ suggestions to the contrary are deeply offensive and untrue.”

Ohhhkay. I am still a little in the dark. Yes, the Weinsteins will exploit this controversy for all the publicity they can muster. That is, indeed, part of their modus operandi. But nothing in the Warners statement explains why that studio is bothering to pursue the issue. How did Jorge Luis Borges describe the Falklands War? “A fight between two bald men over a comb.” Well, in this case, it’s one bald man and one chap with a receding hairline. The fact that the Weinsteins are getting all melodramatic about it doesn’t mean they are not making more sense.

Well, they’ll have to sort it out pronto. The film is due to open in the US next month.

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