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‘The People’s Joker’ and the Perils of Playing With a Studio’s Copyright


Vera Drew never received a cease-and-desist letter. She would like to be very clear on that point.

Drew headed to the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022, newly acquired passport in hand, just a half-hour after finishing the final (or so she thought) cut of “The People’s Joker.” The chaotic, crowdsourced movie reframed Batman’s best-known nemesis as a trans coming-of-age tale, and represented a natural evolution for Drew, a Los Angeles-based television editor and writer for alt-comedy fixtures like Megan Amram, Tim & Eric and Sacha Baron Cohen.

“The People’s Joker,” which Drew starred in as well as directed and co-wrote, was one of 10 titles slated for the eminent festival’s Midnight Madness section alongside the likes of “The Blackening” and “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.” Each film receives a splashy midnight premiere along with a handful of daytime screenings, most of them for press and potential distributors.

Unless, that is, a filmmaker receives a letter from Warner Bros. Discovery the day before. A letter that is not a cease-and-desist but that does convey the disapproval of a multimedia conglomerate with the rights to the film’s characters — and a huge legal team.

“This letter was actually kind of complimentary, but it expressed their concern that the film infringed on their brand,” Drew said. “I was devastated. I was like, ‘No, I got a passport for this! We hired lawyers!’”

A handful of lawyers had, in fact, advised Drew pro bono as she wrote the script with Bri LeRose. But after Peter Kuplowsky, the Midnight Madness programmer, fell in love with the film (“It was punk and exciting and transgressive and sort of inspiring”) and lobbied hard to include it in the festival, he did set one condition. “We wanted her to have a legal team vet her project,” he said, at which point Drew retained the law firm Donaldson Callif Perez.

A series of negotiations — almost literally 11th-hour negotiations, in light of the scheduled start time — between the festival staff and Warner Bros. Canada resulted in a compromise: The show could go on. Once. At midnight. After that, the first “People’s Joker” TIFF screening would also be the last one. (A Warner Bros. Discovery spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.)

On one level, the scuttled screenings were a blessing to Drew. “Honestly, the press screenings were freaking me out a bit,” she said. “We had a whole festival run planned after that, but I came back and really needed to hit pause and strategize.”

Thus began several months of silence until the film tentatively started poking its head up for a handful of “secret screenings,” then film festivals, buoyed by a #FreeThePeoplesJoker campaign on social media. This skittish limbo will finally come to an end on April 5, a full year and a half after the film’s Toronto unveiling, when the queer-centric distributor Altered Innocence will release “The People’s Joker.”

Frank Jaffe, the owner of Altered Innocence, said he received his own copy of the same not-a-cease-and-desist letter shortly after announcing his company had acquired the film. “I just think they wanted more information,” he said. “They wanted to know the scope of the release.”

That scope is currently at 76 theaters and counting. “There are a lot of queer people in a lot of small communities,” Jaffe said, “and we want to reach as many of them as we can.” He said the company’s small size — he is its sole full-time employee — makes it fairly nimble in terms of scaling up. Or, if Warner Bros. Discovery decides to get involved, scaling way down.

As it stands now, though, audiences outside the film-festival circuit are about to get their first look at a brash, kaleidoscopic riff on the Batman legend that incorporates images and plot lines from seemingly every version of Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck, a.k.a. Batman and the Joker.

The most obvious inspiration is “Joker,” Todd Phillips’s 2019 gritty reboot of the character. Drew originally planned to use some of her Covid-necessitated down time from her alt-comedy day jobs — “People weren’t really paying me to add fart sounds to their shows at that point” — re-editing the 2019 film for her own enjoyment.

Along the way, though, she identified various similarities between the Batman story and her own emergence as a trans woman in the often-regressive world of comedy. And other iterations of the Caped Crusader became equally strong lodestars.

“I really love the Joel Schumacher Batmans,” Drew said, referring to the often-derided 1990s sequels that added nipples to the costumes worn by both Val Kilmer and George Clooney. “They feel like really big, gay, expensive comic-book movies. Queer-coded villains are pretty much my favorite trope, and Joker has always been a really queer character to me.”

And while she said she appreciated what she called “some of the anarcho-leftist messages” in “Joker,” Drew saw the value of questioning the current comic-book monoculture on a more fundamental level.

“I never thought of it as ‘Now it’s the girls’ turn!’” she said of her own effort. “It speaks more to how we have to hear all the time that these films are our modern myths. I think a lot of that is Marvel propaganda.”

The Joker may be the purview of DC Comics, not Marvel, but the fear of running afoul of copyright laws was no less of a concern.

“I kept myself very informed legally in terms of what qualifies as a parody and what fair use really is,” said Drew, referring to the legal doctrine that allows artists to use copyrighted material without permission or consequence depending on the circumstances. The “People’s Joker” poster calls it “A Fair Use Film by Vera Drew.”

Rebecca Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School and an expert in fair use, said artistic works find themselves on safer legal ground when they comment on the original material in a transformative way.

“Favored use is critical in that it performs an interpretation,” said Tushnet, who has not seen the film but was willing to discuss it in the abstract. “A parody is the classic example, but it doesn’t have to be funny. If the metaphor that the Joker represents here is a different metaphor, then it might well fall under the category of transformative fair use.”

“Transformative” is an understatement for what Drew and her crew — more than 100 artists collaborated with her virtually during the pandemic, the majority of them trans and/or queer — have done with and to the Batman universe, creating new stop-motion and 2D-animated sequences as well as computer-generated imagery. Drew maintains that they were hardly flying under the radar.

“I kind of assumed it was fine because I hadn’t heard from Warner Bros. the entire time I was making it,” Drew said. “I worked at Adult Swim for a number of years, which is owned by Warner Bros. After every meeting, I would say, ‘Hey, just so you know, I’m working on a Joker parody!’ And everyone was always like, ‘That sounds awesome!’”

Even after Drew felt confident that the bulk of “The People’s Joker” was legally in the clear, one aspect remained worrisome after Altered Innocence acquired the film: its soundtrack, for which Drew had commissioned cover songs and parodies of “Batman”-themed music by the likes of Prince and Seal.

Securing clearances for these versions, however, was another story. “We had a budget, but every music publisher was concerned about not wanting to rock the Warner Bros. boat,” Drew said.

Justin Krol and Quinn Scharber had composed large chunks of the film’s score already, with what Krol described as “nods to different Batman eras.” Drew called them back to steer those spot-on musical cues a little further from the spot.

“Instead of doing a sound-alike,” Krol said of the new material, “we came in from the perspective that we were doing an extension of that world.”

Not even these last-minute soundtrack tweaks were enough to avoid the attention of the keepers of the Batman kingdom. “I felt just the way Vera felt,” Jaffe, the Altered Innocence owner, said of hearing from Warner Bros. Discovery himself. “It is very intimidating to get a letter from a company with a ton of lawyers.

Jaffe said he was also mindful of not antagonizing the company when its own “Joker” follow-up, “Joker: Folie à Deux,” was set for an October release.

“Obviously, if ‘Joker 2’ was coming out in April, we probably wouldn’t want to put ours out in April,” he said. “We didn’t want to be aggressive. Everybody should have space to play.”

Drew also wanted to see some space between the two “Joker” openings, if only to avoid any confusion. And she said she was sympathetic to Warner Bros. Discovery and other corporate megaliths.

“I understand why media conglomerates want to protect their brand,” she said. “They’re probably never going to give us their stamp of approval, and I don’t blame them. But at every festival screening, it seemed like some lawyer came up to me and said, ‘Yeah, I think this is fine.’”



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