NEW YORK — With the drama of a summer blockbuster, the dustup over the rights to a film title has turned into a public battle between Harvey Weinstein and Warner Bros.
Disputed is the claim to the title "The Butler," which the Weinstein Co. has promoted as the name of an upcoming drama about a White House butler. An arbitrator last week ruled Warner Bros. has the right to "The Butler," having released a so-named silent short in 1916.
Weinstein, appalled that his potential Oscar bait could be derailed by such an old, inconsequential film, took to "CBS This Morning" on Tuesday to claim Warner Bros. has an "ulterior motive" in refusing to allow use of the title.
In an interview later with The Associated Press, he claimed that Warner Bros. is using the "Butler" dispute to attempt to extort his share of the three-part series "The Hobbit," of which he owns a percentage having developed the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy while running Miramax.
"They mentioned that if I gave up 'The Hobbit,' they could make the title problem go away," Weinstein said.
The film, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forrest Whitaker, is to be released Aug. 16. It's based on the life of White House butler Eugene Allen, whose service extended through decades of U.S. presidents.
Weinstein acknowledged that when he bought the project at the script stage from Sony, "We thought that they had cleared it (the title)." He said bargaining between the heads of distribution for Warner Bros. and the Weinstein Co. was moving smoothly "and then all of a sudden it changed."
"There's never been a DVD of it," he said of the 1916 short. "It's never been on television. What are they protecting?"
A certain number of Hollywood titles are protected by the Title Registration Bureau, of which the Weinstein Co. and Warner Bros. voluntarily subscribe to, agreeing to be bound by its rules to prevent public confusion over similarly titled films. The registry, a division of the Motion Picture Association of America, mediates any disputes, which are usually resolved quietly with some horse trading.
Warner Bros. re-registered the title in recent years, but has no known plans to use it.
Weinstein is appealing the decision and has enlisted attorney David Boies to represent the company in the matter. He claims possible alternatives like "White House Butler" and "Lee Daniels' Butler" are already registered.
"I hope we get a good result," said Weinstein. "If not, we'll go to court with a restraining order and David will file saying this is anti-competition."
Warner Bros. issued a statement Tuesday claiming Weinstein was using the matter to publicize his film "by disseminating deliberate misinformation." The studio claims the Weinstein Co. "is following an oft-trodden path of creating 'well-publicized controversies' in order to promote their films by disseminating deliberate misinformation about the true nature of this dispute.
"The Weinsteins are sophisticated experts in this arena and three neutral arbitrators have penalized them for blatantly disregarding MPAA rules. It goes without saying that Warner Bros. has no issue with Lee Daniels' film (never has) and fully supports the artistic goals of the filmmakers. The Weinsteins' suggestions to the contrary are deeply offensive and untrue."
Weinstein has taken advantage of such spats before for the generated publicity. Last year, he launched a public attack against the MPAA over its initial R rating (due to harsh language) for the anti-bullying documentary "Bully." After the film was initially released unrated, it was edited slightly and the MPAA changed the rating to PG-13.
"People are always saying you're maximizing a controversy," said Weinstein. "I'd rather have the title than the controversy. We have to take our trailers down. We have to take our posters down. We've already taken our website down. And if we don't do it, it's $25,000 a day."
In recent days, Deadline.com has posted angry back-and-forth letters between Bois and Warner Bros. attorney John Spiegel. Spiegel has cited previous Weinstein or Miramax titles that disregarded the procedures of the title registry, and had to then pay, for films like "Scream," ''Il Postino" and 2007's "Control," for which Weinstein paid $100,000 to use the title.
"What are they doing, trying to teach me a lesson?" says Weinstein. "These big corporations just think they can bully the little guy."
Certainly, when Weinstein is claiming the plight of the underdog, there's a degree of Hollywood-style bluster. On "CBS This Morning," MPAA chairman Chris Dodd urged cooler heads to prevail, telling both sides: "Sit down and work it out. This is silly."