The new film from Lee Daniels, the astonishingly inept filmmaker who still manages to do pretty well by himself, was titled The Butler. I say was because Warner Bros just stepped in and demanded the title be changed, lest people confuse it with a movie in their library. A 1916 short silent film also called The Butler.
Yo, that's fucked up. And it's clearly dirty business. It's not like Warner Bros is really worried that people will confuse the two films. They're just doing whatever petty thing they can to make the movie, which is the true story of the head butler at the White House for 34 years, stumble on its way to the Oscars.
Here's how it all works: you cannot copyright titles, but Warner Bros and the Weinstein Company are both subscribed to the MPAA's Title Registration Bureau, which is a voluntary organization that keeps check on all movie titles to make sure there's no public confusion when they're released. Warners appealed to the MPAA, and the MPAA found in favor of Warners - despite the fact that the studio made no claim that they were planning on ever using the title again!
With The Butler coming out in little over a month changing the title is a big pain in the ass for the Weinstein Company, so they've hired David Boies - who just helped win the Supreme Court case over DOMA and Prop 8 - to go on the attack. It's hard to deny this statement by Boies:
The suggestion that there is a danger of confusion between The Weinstein Co.’s 2013 feature movie and a 1917 [sic] short that has not been shown in theaters, television, DVDs, or in any other way for almost a century makes no sense.
This isn't the first time in recent memory that a title has been kept from a movie under shady circumstances; Fox refused to allow Sony Pictures Classics to use the title The Raid, and the company had to go with The Raid: Redemption. Usually this sort of situation is resolved behind the scenes, but I wonder if the future of on-demand media - where even a hundred year old movie has some value to the company - is changing studios' willingness to give up titles to old films.
Or maybe Warner Bros is just being kind of an asshole to Harvey Weinstein, who SO deserves it.