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

The Butler Forest Whitaker

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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  1. Just Confused says:

    WHY all this squabbling over a title that doesn’t really create a “want to see hook anyway?” I bet many active film-going types will breeze right by this snooze-inducing title.
    Sometimes even when you “win” you lose.

  2. Michael Aldridge says:

    It’s so easy to champion Harvey’s films, but rare when one can get behind his business practices. But he’s right as rain this time. Go, sir!

  3. Simone says:

    I stand with Weinstein on this issue. WB should be ashamed trying to block a title like The Butler by comparing it to a WB short made almost 100 years ago. This is petty WB. Grow up.

    • johnS says:

      Interesting that in this very same story they don’t discuss the fact that Weinstein has been on the OPPOSITE side of this issue and in several cases fought other studios from titling their films because he felt he had right to everyday words. While I see what Weinstein is saying – and he’s right… the fact that he used the very system to he signed up for to stop others from doing the same thing… well… POT KETTLE BLACK.

  4. I am and have always been a participant in the fight for equality, regardless whether it be about race, womens rights or same sex marriage. What I have a problem with is people or companies riding on the coat tails of those battles and using them for their own financial gain. Has the Weinstein Co. set up any kind of charity’s or college funds or anything in that vein. Do they plan on donating any of their profits to orgainzations that support those causes?

  5. writersmama says:

    Really enjoyed this, Ted, Thanks. Mr. Weinstein is doing what he does best-also sounds like a great flick-look forward to seeing it…whatever its title will be…:)

  6. Marco Vega says:

    What a ridiculous, one-sided article. The “Bully” issue was about rating it R for strong cussing in a film meant for an under 17 audience. This is about calling a movie about a butler “The Butler”. In both cases, opposing side was/is being an extraordinary douche with no understanding of what the filmmaker was/is trying to accomplish.

    If Weinstein’s arsenal of weapons is use that douchery as counter-publicity, how is he the bad guy??

  7. Steve Weinshel says:

    I don’t think there is much need to debate Harvey’s ability to market a movie. The points made that were most significant to me were the facts that the precedent for duplicate titles had been made repeatedly in the past, it appears the asset value of Warner’s The Butler is hovering at zero, and the opportunities for and significance of confusion between The Butlers were also bouncing at zero. There appears to be something else driving Warner’s position and it is looking like it is personal, which I don’t think will help their PR position in this.

  8. cadavra says:

    Hate to be a pedant, but Eisenhower to Reagan is seven Presidents. To be eight, he would have to have started with Truman or ended with Bush Sr.

  9. Misterwrite says:

    Uh… Seriously? I don’t think there’s any danger in people confusing a 100-year-old silent short with an epic, star-filled “talkie.” I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on t.v., but this is absurd.

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