Pop quiz: What is the movie The Butler about?
If you answered that it’s an historical drama starring Forest Whitaker as a White House employee with a unique perspective on a tumultuous period in our nation’s history, you’re correct (and likely have seen a trailer or poster). The movie, directed by Lee Daniels and featuring an impressive list of featured players (from Alan Rickman to Oprah Winfrey), opens in theaters August 16. The promotional campaign has already begun, and casting choices—including John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan—has been fun to follow.
But if you answered that it’s a 1916 silent short comedy (presumably, also about a butler), you’re also right.
This week, the two The Butler titles—or, more accurately, their studios, The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros.—have been battling it out over whether Weinstein’s upcoming biopic has the right to use the title.
Here’s what’s happened so far: on Monday, July 1, news broke that Warner Bros. had set the wheels in motion to stop TWC from using The Butler. (As Deadline points out, it’s hard not to think of this as a spiteful move.) The next day, the Title Registry Bureau of the MPAA—an organization that allows studios to voluntarily register titles to protect them from confusing repetition—arbitrated the case and found that TWC had to immediately remove the title from their promotional material for the movies.
The arbitration was binding, so experts say an appeal in court would likely fail. On Wednesday, TWC’s lawyer hinted they might bring the matter to court in a different way: as a sort of antitrust case. The idea there is that, though avoiding confusion is the usual reason to avoid repeating a title, that’s just not logical here, since the two movies bear no resemblance to each other beyond the title; the reason for Warner Bros. to pursue this battle is, says this argument, to clamp down on competition. The Hollywood Reporter‘s legal writers say, however, that such a case would still be unlikely to succeed.
In an attempt to resolve the matter, Lee Daniels wrote a letter (available in full at Deadline) to Warner Bros. Entertainment’s Kevin Tsujihara asking him to reconsider trying to block the title:
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. … I beg you to see it before you decide to force us to change the title. I truly believe that once you watch it, you would not want to cause this film any harm.
It’s not the first double-title problem in Hollywood history—as we reported a few weeks ago, Can’t Hardly Wait was going to be The Party if it weren’t for another Party already out there; and Jennifer Aniston is in an upcoming movie based on the book The Switch that won’t be called The Switch and has nothing to do with her other movie The Switch. But there are plenty of repeats out there (remember Uma Thurman in The Avengers?). Usually when that happens it’s the result of an agreement between the studios not to make a fuss, or to exchange favors—an option that, at this point, The Weinstein Company is probably hoping is still on the table.
Below, check out the trailer for…well, the movie that may—or may not—still be called The Butler next month.