The Bizarre Hollywood Squabble Over The Title For “The Butler”

UPDATED: How Oprah, Lee Daniels, and a black-and-white silent film from 1916 landed at the center of a very public battle between Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company.

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in (the movie that until last week was definitely entitled) The Butler The Weinstein Company

LOS ANGELES — Enter “The Butler” into IMDb, and only four movies come up: Two silent black-and-white short films from 1915 and 1916, one independent Irish short film from 2005, and a feature-length civil rights drama from The Weinstein Company starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and half of Hollywood that is set to open on Aug. 16.

Except by Aug. 16, that movie may no longer be called The Butler.

In one of the strangest squabbles in recent Hollywood history, Warner Bros. is locked in a fierce and increasingly public fight with TWC over the rights to use the title The Butler. The basic beef: That aforementioned 1916 short film called The Butler is part of the Warner Bros. library, and the studio’s lawyers contend that TWC “flouted” the rules that govern how to secure the rights to titles owned by other studios. Those rules — voluntarily agreed to by over 400 signatories — are managed by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Title Registration Bureau, and when Warner Bros. and TWC took their dispute to the TRB’s binding arbitration on July 1, not only did the MPAA side with Warner Bros., but TWC was ordered to stop using the title entirely.

One week later, TWC has done no such thing. The TWC press site still included posters and materials clearly using the title The Butler, and neither side appears to be backing down. As reported by Deadline, lawyers for both sides — David Boies for TWC, and in-house counsel John Spiegel for Warner Bros. — have traded accusations that the other has used the TRB as a tool for extracting punitive concessions from rival studios. The film’s director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) even sent a personal invitation to Warner Bros.’ brand-new CEO Kevin Tsujihara imploring the him to screen the movie and allow it to continue to use the title The Butler. “If we were to change the title a mere six weeks before we open,” wrote Daniels, “it would most certainly hurt the film by limiting the number of people who would ultimately see this important story.” (BuzzFeed has confirmed that Tsujihara sent a personal response to Daniels, though it is unclear whether the executive took the director up on his offer to see the film.)

Indeed, sources at other studios tell BuzzFeed what is so strange about this dispute is how close it is coming to The Butler’s release date. Usually, the title clearing process is far more cut-and-dried. Often before a movie even starts production, its filmmakers submit a title and the quarter in which they plan to open the film to the MPAA, and the title is either cleared for use because it isn’t owned by anyone else, the title’s original owner waives their right for that particular film (sometimes for a fee or other concessions), or the claim is denied and the filmmakers go back to square one. Even similar titles can lead to tricky compromises. In 2010, Warner Bros. won a dispute with Sony Pictures that forced the latter to release The Green Hornet in Jan. 2011 instead of March of that year, because Warner Bros. had already set The Green Lantern to open in June 2011. But that issue was settled quietly, and well before Sony had announced a final release date for The Green Hornet.

As laid out by Spiegel, however, the core of Warner Bros.’ case is that TWC repeatedly did not follow the proper procedure for clearing their title, moving ahead with production on the film and creating trailers and posters for it, without ever gaining the rights to use The Butler as a title. Boies disputes these claims in his response as “inaccurate and incomplete,” though without going into specifics as to why. (Reps for Warner Bros. and Daniels had no comment, while reps for TWC did not respond to requests from BuzzFeed for comment.)

With both sides apparently unwilling to budge, many in Hollywood are wondering why the disagreement became so heated. On the one hand, films released by TWC often find themselves at the center of controversy in the weeks leading up to their release, generating mountains of free publicity through media stories (like this one) — a pattern that leads most to think of studio chief Harvey Weinstein as the ultimate boy who called wolf. Weinstein himself, meanwhile, has rarely endeared him to rivals who’ve come across the wrong side of — hmm, let’s go with his brusque deal-making behavior.

On the other hand, Warner Bros. has no obvious plans to make a movie called The Butler any time soon, and there is zero chance of market confusion between Daniels’ film and the 1916 black-and-white short under Warner Bros.’ umbrella. Regardless, the MPAA clearly believed Warner Bros. to be in the right with regard to the TRB rules. But while the studio itself does not appear to bear any ill will toward Daniels or his movie, the PR optics here for the studio are terrible. Who on earth wants to be the studio that is seen to be damaging a civil rights drama — inspired by the true story of the White House butler who served between the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations — especially one that costars Oprah Winfrey?

But perhaps the strangest development in this entire kerfuffle is this brief aside in Spiegel’s letter to Boies:

TWC could have registered any number of alternative titles featuring the word “Butler.” In fact, TWC registered the title “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which Warner did not protest and which TWC could easily have used.

So to recap: Warner Bros. is protecting its title The Butler to the fullest extent of its right to do so, but the studio is totally fine with a title in which director Lee Daniels literally possesses those same words — a title TWC apparently did bother to register, but doesn’t want to use.

You cannot make this shit up.

Update - July 9, 11:15 a.m., EDT: Harvey Weinstein, David Boies, and MPAA chairman Chris Dodd all appeared Tuesday on CBS This Morning to discuss the dispute. During the segment, Weinstein alleged that two Warner Bros. executives told him that if he relinquished the film rights to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit — for which Warner Bros. is currently paying Weinstein in order to make the ongoing feature film trilogy of the book — the studio would drop its claim for the title to The Butler.

Boies and Weinstein also stated that the MPAA’s ruling, which they are appealing, prevents them from using any form of the word “butler” whatsoever — but neither of them directly addressed Warner Bros.’ claims that TWC did not properly adhere to the rules of the Title Registration Board.

For his part, Dodd said this: “Since 1925, the [title registration] system has worked. When you sign up for this, you agree to play by these rules. There’s still an appeals process. Sit down, talk to each other, you’ve got great lawyers right here. They’re from different companies, they know each other well. Sit down and work it out. This is silly.”

Update - 12:32 p.m., EDT: A spokesperson for Warner Bros. released this statement to BuzzFeed:

The Weinstein Company, as The New York Times has noted, 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.

When asked for comment regarding Weinstein’s allegation that Warner Bros. executives offered to trade the title to The Butler for Weinstein’s film rights to The Hobbit, the Warner Bros. rep responded with, “No correlation.”

You can watch the entire CBS This Morning segment here:

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