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Everything I Know About Trademarks in Movies

May 31, 2012 2 comments

Here’s what I know, which is what everybody knows, about trademarks in movies: nobody knows anything (stolen out-of-context from William Goldman).

Here’s what I think I know about trademark in film, from a slightly educated and largely figuring it out as I go along point of view. First off, we’re talking about narrative fictional films. None of this applies to documentaries, which have a whole different set of rules (which are largely summarized by – show any logo you want in a documentary).

The common wisdom in low-budget filmmaking is that you have to clear every trademark that you use in your film. If you show a bottle of Mug Root Beer in your film, you need to clear it with The New Century Beverage Company so you don’t get sued for using their trademark without permission. You either have to get permission, or you can’t show their logo. I once got paid pretty well for blurring out the logos on trucks that drove by in the background of scenes.

If you ask a lawyer or a filmmaker about trademarks, most of them will tell you that this is what you need to do, except for the ones who will tell you the exact opposite – that you’re (mostly) free to use trademarks in your films.  Lawyers (the more expensive, the more often) will especially tell you that it’s all right as long as you’re not disparaging the product. So if you have someone drinking Coke, that’s OK, but if you have someone dying from the poison in Coke, that’s iffy, and if you suggest the Coke in its natural form is the poison… don’t do that.

So who’s right? In this case, I think everybody. The expensive lawyers will tell you to go ahead and use the trademark, and they’re right. You probably can. Here’s the problem. No one’s really going to sue you for using their trademark because the Coca-Cola Company doesn’t have to sue you. They’ll send you a cease-and-desist letter if they want to, and you’ll remove the scene or the shot or do something to obscure their trademark, because you can’t afford to go to court. How do I know you can’t afford to go to court? Because you’re reading my blog about trademarks instead of talking to your lawyer.

This is why the higher end lawyers tell you it’s OK in their seminars and books, and why no one listens to them. The expensive lawyers work with clients who can afford them to send a letter back to Coke, and continue arguing it as long as it takes. The longer the better, since the lawyers get paid by the hour. But you and I can’t afford to have an outstanding legal issue like a cease-and-desist letter when we’re trying to sell our film to a distributor.

You probably can use the trademarks legally, but no one in our budget range wants to risk that, so you don’t.   Or you get clearance from the company, even though you probably don’t need to. It’s not that you can’t use their logos –  it’s that you choose not to have the hassle.

The other reason to avoid trademarks is because you want your work to be salable. If you have a series of trademarks throughout your film, it’s one more reason for a TV channel not to put your film on their network – so as not to give free advertising to people who might be competing with their own ads. For about 30 seconds we considered trying to get someone to buy advertising on Table at Luigi’s and buy a block of time on the Food Network, but then we realized the number of conflicts we’d have in our product placement within the film.

But all this is just my opinion – I’m not a lawyer, just someone who’s dug into this and come up with an opinion. And you know what those are worth…

By the way, here’s link to Logorama, an awesome animation that uses a lot of trademarked logos in very disparaging ways. The rumor was that some festivals were afraid to play it because they worried about the potential lawsuits. This is easily one of the most defensible uses of a trademark, ever – it’s obviously satirical and critiquing the corporations (and their constant use of logos and mascots) – the filmmakers are so in their right to use the logos, it shouldn’t even be a question.  Also, it won 2010 Animated Short Oscar.

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10 Great Seconds – Enchanted

October 23, 2011 2 comments

Another 10 Great Seconds – this is the last bit of the big musical number in “Enchanted.” This movie is about 100 times better than the premise has the right to be. It’s a really fun script and the performances are spot on. But this musical number that breaks out in Central Park spontaneously, because that’s what happens around Disney Princesses, is beyond great. After we finished the movie, I went back and made Kat watch it again. It’s just such an explosion of happiness. I’ll get to “Make em Laugh” from “Singin in the Rain” eventually, but this is on par with that.

The music is by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. This is perfect Schwartz material – it’s slightly a parody, so it lets him use his cynicism for good, instead of just being depressing. Same as he did with “Wicked.”

What to look for: Amy Adam’s hands – they never leave that Disney Princess position. She must have had carpal tunnel when they wrapped. And then watch everything. This is all the people they met during the course of the song, all now coming together for the big finish. There’s some new fun thing to watch every time I look at it, but I always come back to the old people doing their moves in half time, and their ending position. It just makes me happy.

You should watch this one in full screen, by the way.

10 Great Seconds – The Stinkeye

October 20, 2011 Comments off

How do you not love the cut to Katrina “Stinkeye?” You know they only added this shot in post-production.

When I’m driving, I like to watch the other drivers and 1 out of 10 people look just like this.

10 Great Seconds – Drinking in the Morning with the Thin Man

October 13, 2011 Comments off

This is 10 seconds from “The Thin Man” with William Powell and Myrna Loy. The story behind the movie is that it was just written as a mystery with a couple of laughs, but Powell and Loy knocked it out of the park on set.

Honestly, the mystery’s the least interesting part of the film, while scenes like this one rock. You can just imagine the script of this scene before the actors got a hold of it – “The detective speaks on the phone in direct tones” – what could be more thrilling? But they threw such fun little moments in, and were obviously enjoying every second of it, that this boring scene becomes GREAT! And the film is full of scenes like this. It was a huge hit, and they made five more of ‘em after this first one.

By the way, if I remember correctly, this is set early afternoon, she’s just getting up after a huge drinking binge from the night before, and notice that Powell already has a drink in his hand. It’s that kinda movie. :)  Check it out!

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