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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 representeda 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.)

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