The Motion Picture Assn. of America on Friday morning will hear an appeal by the Weinstein Co. over the title to its Civil War drama, "The Butler."
The appeal of the MPAA's arbitration ruling earlier this month, comes less than a month before the prestige movie's scheduled Aug. 16 opening, and its marketing campaign in a holding pattern.
On July 2, the MPAA's Title Registration Bureau prohibited the Weinstein Co. from using “The Butler” as the title for its movie because a 1916 short in the Warner Bros. library shares the same name.
TWC argued that "The Butler" short has been out of circulation for years and that Warner Bros has no reason to stand in its way of using the title. Warner Bros. maintains it might use the title in the future, and that as an MPAA signatory, TWC is bound to abide by the arbitrator's ruling.
Lee Daniels directed “The Butler,” in which Forrest Whitaker portrays Cecil Gaines, who served eight presidents as the White House's head butler from 1952 to 1986. The starry ensemble cast includes Liev Schreiber, Alex Pettyfer, John Cusack, Robin Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and Lenny Kravitz.
In the wake of the decision the Weinstein Co. hired high-powered attorney David Boies, who is handling the appeal. But in the meantime, the ruling has precluded it from using “The Butler” in any promotions or marketing under penalty of a $25,000 per-day fine. The web site and Facebook page for the film have been taken down, and commercials and print ads have been curtailed — which could have a negative effect at the box office.
"The timing could hardly be worse," BoxOffice.com editor-in-chief Phil Contrino told TheWrap. "The web site and the social media campaign were just starting to gain traction." The Facebook page for the movie was at 680,000 "likes" before going inactive.
The film, which has a $25 million production budget, doesn't necessarily have blockbuster potential at the box office, but it is very much in the awards race discussion.
TWC chief executive Harvey Weinstein has a rich history of stirring controversy before his films' releases, and the high-profile arguments over the title have kept "The Butler" in the headlines and on the morning TV news shows in the week following the ruling. But Contrino said that press coverage only goes so far.
"The controversy makes some headlines, but that's not nearly the same as having a Facebook page and the web site, and they've lost a lot of marketing momentum," he said.
There's room for a compromise. Earlier this year, Warner Bros. said it would have no problem if the film were titled "Lee Daniels' The Butler." So that's an option, depending on how the MPAA rules in the TWC's appeal Friday.