What's in a Name? Warner Bros. and the Weinstein Co. Battle Over 'The Butler'

Harvey Weinstein Photograph by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

The Weinstein Co. has a movie coming out called The Butler. I know what you’re thinking—and no, it’s not a remake of that classic 1916 silent film produced by the long-defunct Lubin Manufacturing Co. It’s a new Lee Daniels-directed film, starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, about a White House butler. That hasn’t stopped Warner Brothers, which owns the 1916 film, to ask that the new movie’s name be changed. Don’t movies recycle titles all the time?

The Motion Picture Association of America has run the Title Registration Bureau since 1925, which allows movie studios to voluntarily register their film titles so that other studios won’t use them. Film titles can’t be copyrighted, but the bureau makes all 400 of its registered studios agree to abide by its rules. The MPAA periodically sends a list of proposed film titles to its members and if there’s a conflict—say, if one studio says to another, ‘Hey, your new movie is named after our old one’—the parties work with the MPAA to resolve the issue. Usually, the offending film studio either pays a fee or changes its project’s name. In 1938, Paramount asked Charlie Chaplin to pay $25,000 to call his forthcoming Hitler spoof The Dictator because it had already registered that title with the MPAA. Chaplin declined and changed the title to The Great Dictator. (Weirdly, Paramount would finally release a film called The Dictator in 2012, starring Sacha Baron Cohen).

Sometimes film titles don’t have to match exactly to involve the MPAA. In 1998, Sean Connery had a new film coming out called Dancing About Architecture, but the title sounded a lot like the recent Meryl Streep film Dancing at Lughnasa. To avoid confusion, Connery’s film title was changed to Playing by Heart. And studios often get creative when they resolve potential conflicts. In 2002, MGM agreed to let New Line Cinema spoof its 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger with Austin Powers In Goldmember, but just so long as the trailer for MGM’s new James Bond film Die Another Day played before each screening.

The Title Registration Bureau relies on studios’ self-policing of copycat titles, which means that if no one complains or if an agreement is reached, a title can be reused. That explains why there’s The Host, a 2006 Korean monster film that was also released in the U.S. and The Host, a 2013 romantic sci-fi comedy based on a Stephenie Meyer novel. There’s also Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the 2005 movie in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play assassins in love, as well as a 1941 Hitchcock film, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Titles are usually blatantly copied only when the original film is really old or it’s foreign. Sometimes movies come out too close together and people get confused. (In 2005, I thought it was strange that people kept asking me if I’d seen the Noah Baumbach film Kicking and Screaming. Turns out that no, they just wanted to know if I’d seen the Will Ferrell movie about a boy’s soccer coach.)

Given how easily most title disputes are resolved, the Weinstein Co. and Warner Brothers should be able to solve their problem pretty quickly. But according to Deadline, with just a month left before The Butler’s release, Warner Brothers isn’t budging. This may be a sign of some larger beef between the two companies. Or maybe Warner Brothers is just really attached to silent films starring Davy Don and Patsy De Forest, whoever they are.

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