Playing the Name Game

Director Lee Daniels (Precious) finds himself in a most curious position less than two months from the release of his new film, a historic drama detailing the life of Eugene Allen (here known as Cecil Gaines and played by Academy Award winner Fore

Jul 10, 2013 at 9:01 am

Director Lee Daniels (Precious) finds himself in a most curious position less than two months from the release of his new film, a historic drama detailing the life of Eugene Allen (here known as Cecil Gaines and played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker), a quiet Everyman who served eight presidents during his time as a butler in the White House. It is intriguing to note that the White House never found itself under attack during his tenure, yet as the film about his life draws near, a battle, seemingly intent on rivaling the epic destruction, terror and mayhem on display in Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down combined, is being waged between The Weinstein Company (TWC) and Warner Brothers Entertainment. At stake, not a single fact or representation of a historic personage; no, Daniels must sit back and watch as his completed work, born after years of careful development and execution, endures a legal tug of war over a name.

Since 2010, Daniels and TWC have gone about the business of building steady buzz for The Butler. What’s in a name? A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but that supposition matters little because roses have been branded as roses for so long, we would never be able to even conceive of changing the name to test the validity of the counter argument. In today’s market, branding takes hold instantaneously, and proliferates virally. 

Naming concerns revolve around the strategic use of key words and the associations that spring to mind based on those words. Did the team behind the 1995 film Heat lose any sleep over the Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy release The Heat? Before laughing this notion off, consider the similarities. Each movie focuses on police action and a pairing of major league stars (Pacino/De Niro). It could be argued that the broad hijinks of the Bullock/McCarthy project might diminish the cache of Michael Mann’s neo-classic heist. One simple word sets the two titles apart, but was that enough?

How about David Fincher’s twisted thriller The Game, which now shares the exact same name with a television series that explores the lives of professional football players and their wives? Is there a degree of confusion that arises in the social media sphere during discussions of these projects? That’s the issue, right?

I’m certain that is what Daniels hopes is driving this current situation because that concern might be easily remedied. Warner Brothers has the rights to The Butler because that title belongs to a 1916 silent film languishing in their library, a film that is not available on DVD or Blu-Ray, a film that has likely not been screened in the last 50 years. There would likely be very little confusion to worry about between these two titles, so it would appear that some arrangement could be reached, allowing the Daniels film to carry on with the name with no fear.

But this game is far more complicated than that. Turns out TWC jumped the gun, using the title The Butler without receiving proper clearance from the title office. They did so based on the idea that they would be able to strike a deal with Warner Brothers to secure an exemption. These behind the scenes exchanges take place all the time — it’s how business gets done in most industries — but when problems like this arise, they expose a reality of uncertainty; in particular, the precarious position creative types can find themselves in, through no fault of their own.

Daniels now resides in limbo. He is at the mercy of Warner Brothers, a company engaged in a legal battle with TWC, and there is apparently bad blood between the combatants. His film has no title and faces daily monetary penalties ($25,000 for continuing to use the title in its ongoing promotion of the film). He has made a direct personal plea to the head of the studio (CEO Kevin Tsujihara), but the studio now speaks only through its lawyers who claim that TWC could have averted all of this drama by simply registering Lee Daniels’ The Butler as an alternative title.

This isn’t about having your name in the title, though, or, to be honest, the name itself. Let’s call this what it is, a pissing match between two industry players that profess to care about films, but what matters more is maintaining face and brands. The sad fact is that the actual rose is just a MacGuffin.


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