News broke this week that the Motion Picture Assn. of America was not going to allow the film up to now known as "The Butler," and scheduled to be released in August, to use that title. Warner Bros. claimed it had the rights to the title based on a 1916 short film.
Harvey Weinstein, who is distributing Daniels' film, announced he was retaining heavyweight lawyer David Boies to fight the decision. Boies was recently successful in front of the Supreme Court in having California's same-sex marriage ban dismissed.
"The Butler," with a screenplay by Danny Strong, stars Forest Whitaker in a story based on Eugene Allen, the African American man who worked in the White House from 1952 to 1986, serving eight presidents. With Oprah Winfrey as his wife, in her first on-screen movie role since 1988, the film has a cast that also includes Robin Williams and Melissa Leo as Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, James Marsden and Minka Kelly as John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, John Cusack as Richard Nixon and Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
The timing of the Warner Bros. claim certainly raised eyebrows, as Daniels' "Butler" project has been known about for some time. He spoke freely of the project while promoting the release of his previous film, "The Paperboy," last year. In an interview with The Times, he spoke of directing Winfrey and said simply for audiences to "be prepared" for the powerhouse drama. Whether Warners has some further gamesmanship involved, looking to create a stumbling block for a competitor to one of its own Oscar hopefuls, is unclear.
In a letter addressed to Tsujihara, with top Warner film executives Sue Kroll, Dan Fellman and Greg Silverman cc'd as well, Daniels declared himself "heartbroken" over the change so close to the film's release date. The letter was first posted on the website Deadline.com. In part it read:
"'The Butler' is not only a story about a black family and black history; it is a universal story about family and OUR history.
"I am so proud of this movie. Every member of our cast worked for almost nothing so that this story could be told with only our very small budget. If we were to change the title a mere six weeks before we open, it would most certainly hurt the film by limiting the number of people who would ultimately see this important story. This movie is not a blockbuster, nor did we intend it to be. We just wanted to tell the dark and beautiful story of our nation’s racial history, where we came from, and how far we have come.
"I feel that if this film can succeed and reach people’s hearts, it will only help pave the way for other films that strive to educate and inspire, just as 'The Help' and your very own '42' has done for us. These films, along with the upcoming fall releases of 'Mandela,' 'Fruitvale Station,' and '12 Years a Slave,' serve as crucial moments in film and Black history. An artistic movement is afoot. 'The Butler' is a part of this and I plead you not to hurt the chances of this story reaching as many hearts as it possibly can."
Daniels finished the letter by saying, "I truly hope you will accept my invitation to see the film at your earliest convenience. I strongly believe that if you do, you will root for it not just as film lovers, but as proud Americans." Signing off with "all the love in my heart," Daniels' letter noted that it came "with the support of" Winfrey, Whitaker, Strong and actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and David Oyelowo.
Tsujihara and Warner Bros. have not responded publicly to Daniels' letter. Taking on Harvey Weinstein is one thing, tangling with Oprah may be something else.
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus