The letter, dated Oct. 6, came from a Raritan, N.J., law firm and sounded a blunt warning to L.A. indie filmmaker Seth Landau:
"Our clients are the writers, producers and directors of a feature film entitled 'Take Out.' It has come to our clients' attention that you have produced/directed a film also known as 'Take Out' " and proceeded to give Landau 10 days to change the name of the film. The letter ominously concluded: "Whether further action is to be taken will depend entirely upon the nature of your response."
It isn't unusual for Hollywood studios to challenge rivals over film titles that might be too similar and could cause confusion among moviegoers. But the case of the "Take Out" versus "Take Out" is hardly such a high-stakes showdown: This dust-up over identical film titles involves two low-budget, independent movies with vastly different characters and story lines.
The filmmakers represented by the law firm -- Crefilm, and co-directors Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou -- spent $3,000 on their film, which was shot cinema verite-style on digital video. It is a day-in-the-life take on Ming Ding, an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a Chinese take-out shop in New York who gets behind in his payments to smugglers and realizes he must double his tips in order to pay off his debts.
Baker, a New York University film grad, and Tsou, debuted their film at the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival, and it has been screened at more than 25 other festivals, grabbing the grand jury prize at the Nashville Film Festival. The New York-based distributor CAVU Pictures plans to release the movie in art house theaters around the country sometime next spring or summer.
By contrast, Landau's film was produced for $13,000 and shot on a mini digital video camera in his hometown of Phoenix and tells the story of a man who wages a campaign to rid the nation of chain restaurants.
Landau, a journalist-turned-filmmaker who attended Arizona State University, has submitted his film to a number of festivals, including Sundance and Slamdance, but does not have a distributor.
Both sides are vowing to stick with their respective titles, despite the inevitable confusion that may arise.
Landau said he was caught off guard by the dispute because independent filmmakers often go out of their way to encourage each other -- not send threatening letters from lawyers. "You see this kind of thing happening to studio movies all the time," Landau said, "but you don't often see it in indie film ranks."
Indie filmmaking, he said, is usually a "very communal" place in which filmmakers adopt an attitude of "let's get out there and help each other."
Michael Sergio, chief executive and co-founder of CAVU Pictures, worries that having two movies with the same title could result in a "confusion of product."
"Blockbuster would frown if there were two competing 'Take Outs' on the same shelf," Sergio said. But he added that because the Baker-Tsou film that CAVU has agreed to distribute is expected to reach the marketplace first, "the impact is more on them than us [to change titles]. Any other distributor that picks up their film will make them change their title."
But Landau doesn't think that's fair, since he was the first to register his script with the Writers Guild of America in January 2003 -- a full year before the other film arrived at Slamdance. He said that before registering his title, he checked the Internet Movie Database website and could not find another film with the title "Take Out."
Sergio, however, points out that his film screened at Slamdance months before Landau's film went before the cameras. Sergio also accused Landau of trying to gain some publicity off CAVU's film: "If they really want to generate free publicity they should simply change their title to 'Gone With the Wind.' "
Major Hollywood studios frequently go toe-to-toe with their rivals over film titles. But these disputes, while they can become rancorous, rarely become public. Under rules of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, the member studios are required to submit such disputes to an outside, independent arbitration panel, which hears arguments on both sides and issues a ruling.
Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios, recalled a dispute that erupted last year when Revolution announced plans to release a Christmas comedy starring Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis and based on the John Grisham book that the studio wanted to title "Skipping Christmas." Sherak said DreamWorks complained because that studio was making a dark comedy called "Surviving Christmas" starring Ben Affleck that was due out at Thanksgiving, and thought the two titles were too similar and would confuse moviegoers.