The Breakdown

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What's in a name? When it comes to movies, a lot

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The Weinstein Company and Warner Brothers continue to battle over the title of the forthcoming movie, “The Butler”… if that’s what it will be called.

The movie, directed by Lee Daniels and starring Forrest Whitaker as a White House butler who served eight presidents, is scheduled to hit theaters August 16.  But Warner Brothers has disputed Weinstein’s rights to the title with the Motion Picture Association of America because Warner Bros. released a silent short film by the same name in 1916.    

The MPAA has sided with Warner Bros. so far, but the Weinstein Company is appealing the decision and has hired high-profile attorney David Boies to help.

The dispute has yielded accusations from Warner Bros. that Weinstein is stoking publicity fires, and claims from Weinstein that Warner Bros. has an ulterior motive to make a deal for his share of “The Hobbit” franchise.

But, with one month to go before the film’s release, it’s not clear what title will wind up on the marquis and tickets.   Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office division at Hollywood.com, says changing a film’s title so soon before release can be dangerous.

“All the marketing is pegged to that title,” said Dergarabedian, pointing out that trailers, TV spots, and other promotional materials for movie theater lobbies must be made and distributed in advance.   He said if the title is changed, it is as if the movie the public was expecting no longer exists.

“In the mind of the consumer, if a title changes pretty close to the release date,  that could really be harmful to a film,” Dergarabedian said.

Title disputes and changes are nothing new in Hollywood.   In 2010, Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures  released a live-action film based on the animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” that had first aired five years earlier.  But in 2009, James Cameron’s “Avatar” hit theaters.   Paramount and Nickelodeon dropped the “avatar” from its movie title and released “The Last Airbender.”  

In 2007, 20th Century Fox released a  fantasy adventure, “The Seeker.”  It was based on a book series called “The Dark is Rising,” and the film was first marketed under that title.  Two months ahead of release, the title was changed to “The Seeker” in the U.S.

“It didn’t make much noise at the box office," said Dergarabedian. "I don’t know that it would have under any title," adding that the film received poor reviews. 

A box office flop in spite of a great title, Dergarabedian said, was 2006’s “Snakes on a Plane,” starring Samuel Jackson.  For a while, that film was titled “Pacific Air  Flight 121.”  

The original title of “Pretty Woman” was “$3,000," a reference to the rate Julia Roberts’ character was paid for her services.

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