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Harvey Weinstein Has Already Won ‘The Butler’ Battle (Opinion)

When “CBS This Morning” did a segment on the Warner Bros.-Weinstein Co. title tug-of-war over “The Butler” on Tuesday, what most viewers probably came away with was here was an upcoming summer release that has Oprah Winfrey in the cast and has something to do with civil rights.

That’s why it probably doesn’t even matter whether Harvey Weinstein is ultimately forced to change the film’s title, whether Warner Bros. is right that this is all about his m.o. for publicity stunts, or whether there’s any hypocrisy involved in the squabble. The Weinstein Co. already has gotten what it wanted: Attention to a prestige pic that’s about to be released in the dog days of summer. Weinstein appeared on the morning show, which showed a clip from the Aug. 16 release featuring Winfrey and Forest Whitaker.

The movie, from director Lee Daniels,  is based on the real life account of a White House butler who served eight American presidents, from Truman to Reagan. In other words, it’s an Oscar-caliber  pic that’s going to depend on word-of-mouth, just as the Weinstein Co. documentary “Bully” did last year. Then, Weinstein challenged the MPAA’s “R” rating for the documentary “Bully,” capitalizing on a petition campaign and ultimately reaching an agreement to obtain a lesser PG-13. Undoubtedly, the controversy gave “Bully” more attention than any other documentary released last year.

Warner Bros. disputed Weinstein’s use of the “Butler” title because it was the name of a 1916 silent movie owned by the Burbank studio.  Last week, an MPAA arbitration panel ruled in Warner’s favor. Weinstein is appealing the ruling.

On Tuesday’s “CBS This Morning” segment, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd and First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, outside counsel to the MPAA, explained the process for title registration and that Weinstein still had an appeal process to follow. Urging the sides to simply sit down and talk it through, Dodd added, “This is silly.”

Weinstein cited the lack of controversy with multiple movies titled “Heat,” as an example. But he also tried to elevate an intra-industry squabble into a David vs. Goliath situation, mentioning right off the bat that this is a “movie about civil rights,” and that, in his own way, he’s a crusader. “My dad taught me to fight injustice,” he said. “This is unjust.”

Boies, fresh off of a successful legal effort to overturn California’s Proposition 8, what some have called the civil rights battle of our time, charged that this was an effort by the major studios to “restrict competition.” “We’re going to find a way to get this important movie out,” he said. That’s right from the movie marketing playbook: See the movie they don’t want you to see.

Warner Bros. has cried foul, calling Weinstein’s statements “deeply offensive and untrue,” as they are not trying to take issue with the movie, but the title. Dodd is defending a nearly century-old process for arbitrating title disputes, most of which never make it to this level of attention. They may be right: there is a process to follow, one that Weinstein has long agreed to, and the appeal has yet to play out. But as they are arguing about details in how titles are delved out, Weinstein is going a long way to making this more than just another movie.

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