Warner Bros has forced Lee Daniels into pleading to get his movie title back

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Picking a title for a movie is no easy task. Pick wrong and you just provide your critics with inspiration for their scathing headlines (“This Oz ain’t so great or powerful!” comes to mind). And when you finally have one, a title that perfectly encapsulates everything you want to say about your film, and then somebody tries to steal that title from you at the last second? Well, that’s just heartbreaking, which is exactly how writer/director Lee Daniels is feeling right now about his upcoming Oscar contender, The Butler.

Director Lee Daniels

The highly anticipated drama stars Academy Award winning Forrest Whittaker as Cecil Gaines, a character heavily based on the real life of Eugene Allen, an African American butler in the White House who served 8 US Presidents through some of the most racially charged times in that country’s history. With an all-star cast, a seemingly heartfelt story and Daniels’ directing pedigree (he helmed the Oscar winning Precious), the film is primed to make a critical splash when it gets released in 6 weeks time, and is already being looked at as an early Oscar favourite.

But now, virtually at the eleventh hour of the film’s production, Daniels is fighting an unexpected battle for the film’s name. The problems began a few days ago when Warner Bros issued a legal claim to the title “The Butler”, prompting the MPAA to block Daniels and production studio The Weinstein Company from making use of it. WB claims that they own the copyright on the title due to the fact that they had released a little known silent short film under that name in 1916.

It’s widely believed that this admittedly frivolous claim is payback for TWC requesting a similar injunction against an upcoming WB produced film, The Good Lie, due to it being too similar to a soon to be released film from TWC’s stable called The Good Life. TWC however dropped that charge soon thereafter.

With just a couple of weeks to go before The Butler‘s release, changing the film’s title in all the marketing would be an absolute nightmare, resulting in Daniels now issuing this personal plea to WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara to drop the matter.

“I have spent the last four years of my life working on the film, The Butler, and it is the proudest moment of my professional career. I am heartbroken as I write this letter to you. I made this film so I could show my kids, my family, and my country some of the injustices and victories African-Americans and their families have experienced in the fight for Civil Rights. Through the eyes of this loving and hard-working family, the film tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement from the sit-ins and the Freedom Riders, to Selma, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the election of the first Black President.

I am so proud of this movie. Every member of our cast worked for almost nothing so that this story could be told with only our very small budget. If we were to change the title a mere six weeks before we open, it would most certainly hurt the film by limiting the number of people who would ultimately see this important story. This movie is not a blockbuster, nor did we intend it to be. We just wanted to tell the dark and beautiful story of our nation’s racial history, where we came from, and how far we have come.”

Daniels has even offered Tsujihara a private screening of the film to try and convince him of its merits, and thus maybe get him to back off. Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of TWC, is not taking quite such a diplomatic approach though, as he’s appointed high-profile lawyer David Boies to take the fight back to WB. It’s uncertain how far either of these tactics will get Daniels and co though, but you can’t help that think that this (pardon my French) dick move from WB can’t be earning them any new fans.

The Butler, or whatever it ends up being called, also stars David Oyelowo, Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey and a rather impressive ensemble, consisting of Robin Williams, Melissa Leo, James Marsden, Minka Kelly, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda, portraying the various Presidents of the time and their First Ladies.

Here’s the most recent trailer to The Film Possibly Formerly Known As The Butler.

Last Updated: July 5, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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