An MPAA appeals board confirmed an arbitration ruling prohibiting The Weinstein Company from using the precise title The Butler for its upcoming White House civil-rights drama starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey. However, the board did leave wiggle room by allowing the word “butler” in potential alternative titles.
Three weeks ago, Warner Bros. had exercised its rights to protect the title, The Butler, which is also a 1916 silent short film that resides in the studio’s archive, via the MPAA’s Title Registration Bureau. The initial July 2 ruling sided with Warner Bros., and penalized TWC $25,000 for every day it continued to promote the film, due Aug. 16, as The Butler. At the time, Harvey Weinstein and TWC’s attorney David Boies protested the ruling, publicly and legally, claiming that there could be no audience confusion between their movie and the 1916 silent movie, and accused Warner Bros. of using the issue as part of a grander negotiation tactic.
The appeals ruling, which the MPAA made on Friday, precludes TWC from calling its movie The Butler — forcing them to correct promotional advertising such as posters and trailers, but allowed for alternative titles that include the word “butler,” such as Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In additional, TWC owes $400,000 in fines to the Entertainment Industry Foundation charity as penalty for its ongoing “willful violation of the TRB Rules” — plus another $25,000 to $50,000 for each addition calendar day they refuse to comply.
Nevertheless, TWC was pleased with the ruling: “We are thrilled this has all come to an end and has been resolved,” Harvey Weinstein said in a statement. “The MPAA’s overturning of their original decision to now allow the use of ‘butler’ in the title is a victory for Lee Daniels, the film’s 28 investors who believed in it, America’s greatest attorney David Boies, and especially in the memory of my friend and the film’s producer Laura Ziskin. Now we can focus on the importance of Lee Daniels’ film, the amazing performances by Forest, Oprah and the incredible cast who spent countless months bringing this story about American history and civil rights to screen.”
Warner Bros. did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The Film Formerly Known as The Butler stars Whitaker as the African-American man who worked at the White House for more than 40 years, serving U.S. presidents during a time of great turmoil and social change. Winfrey plays his devoted wife, and the film also stars David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, Liev Schrieber, John Cusack, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, and Jane Fonda. Danny Strong (Game Change) wrote the screenplay, based on a Washington Post article about White House butler Eugene Allen, and Daniels directed.
Here’s the film’s trailer, which is still viewable in some places online as The Butler.