Before we get into the latest chapter of the insane fight between Warner Bros. and The Weinstein Company over the movie that may or may not wind up being called The Butler, let's look at this newly released clip from the film, which debuted at Moviefone. It's our first look at Oprah Winfrey truly in action in the film, playing the wife of Forest Whitaker's character Cecil Gaines, a butler who served eight different Presidents in the White House over a decades-long career. His work as a butler was the kind of classically subservient job that many African-Americans were stuck with in the post-slavery era… but it was also one that gave a good life to his children, as Oprah powerfully reminds her son (David Oyelowo) in this clip. Who knew Sidney Poitier could cause so much family strife?
Now let's get into the real reason we've been talking about The Butler practically nonstop for the past week or so. Warner Bros. claims they have the right to the title The Butler, based on a 1916 film silent film of the same name that they own. The MPAA agrees with them. The Weinstein Company, however, is fighting back-- loudly and very publicly-- and trying to earn the right to keep the title for themselves. Until today, most of the back-and-forth arguing had been about the publicly explicit facts-- Warner Bros. made their claim to the title years ago, the Weinstein Company went ahead with it anyway, and they're essentially deadlocked in a decision that seems, let's face it, pretty petty. It was easy to guess that there were ulterior motives behind the scenes, though, and now Weinstein-- of course-- has been the first to air them out loud.
In a brief piece for The Huffington Post, Weinstein suggests that this is all a battle over The Hobbit, which of course is currently being released as a trilogy by none other than Warner Bros. According to The New York Post the Weinsteins have a 2.5% share in The Hobbit, having snapped up the rights to Tolkien's book years ago. 2.5% is not a lot when it comes to my income or yours, but it's a ton when you look at how much was made by The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey alone. Here's what Weinstein said about the backdoor dealings regarding those rights:
I was asked by two execs at Warner Brothers, which I'm happy to testify, that if I gave them back the rights to The Hobbit they would drop the claim. For a 1916 short? This was used as a bullying tactic. This was the big guy trying to hit the small guy.
If this sounds like a lot of bellowing over what ought to be an easy-to-resolve dispute, Warner Bros. agree with you. Warner Bros. Executive Vice President of Theatrical Communications Jack Horner got in touch today with a statement about Weinstein's own "bullying tactics":
The Weinstein Company, as the New York Times has noted, 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.
They're right about Harvey Weinstein's famous penchant for fighting everything out in public-- remember the endless PR for the documentary Bully when it was slapped with an R rating? And based on the timeline as Warner Bros. has explained it, the Weinstein Company had months to change The Butler's title-- the MPAA's decision to side with Warner Bros. and ask the Weinsteins to change The Butler's title was issued in November of last year. So while The Weinstein Company shouts over having to change all their marketing materials without even two months to go before the planned August release… it helps to remember that they could have gotten out of this mess months ago.
When it comes to battles between titans like this one, it helps to hear both sides, over and over again as new accusations get lobbed out. But that doesn't mean it's going to be any clearer. At this point they could retitle The Butler "That Movie That Everyone Fought About In The Press" and it might have even better name recognition. There you go, WB and Weinsteins. We've solved your problem for you.