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Gibney Talks Casino Jack and Three More Docs for 2010

by Anne Thompson
November 15, 2009 9:42 AM
13 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

When documentarian Alex Gibney (who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side) learned via his Jack Abramoff "Google Alert" that director George Hickenlooper (Factory Girl) had decided to name his fiction film starring Kevin Spacey as corrupt Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff Casino Jack, Gibney had his lawyer send a legal letter (dated November 10) asking Hickenlooper not to use the title, to which Gibney states he had prior claim, citing "violations of federal and state unfair competition laws":

While there seems little reason to doubt that your mimicry of the Film’s title is knowing and intentional, there can be no doubt of the likelihood of confusion and resulting harm to the film-going public and to our clients if you do not immediately cease all use of the title "Casino Jack" in connection with your film.

Hickenlooper gave that letter to Movieline, which posted it along with this story. Gibney's doc about money and politics (which the IMDb lists as Casino Jack and the United States of Money) is in post-production. Gibney says the movie is "funny, but the joke's on us," and hopes to take it to Sundance in January.

Thompson on Hollywood

"It's shameless," says Gibney. "'There's another movie called Casino Jack.' I guess they decided to steal it. I fired a shot across his bow. We're coming out first and have a distributor, Magnolia/Participant. They don't have a distributor. I hope they'll back off. We were there first, we showed excerpts in Austin [at SXSW]. Why are they doing this? I don't get it."

Looks like a publicity grab to me.

Gibney didn't talk to Movieline, but posted this on Facebook:

I have just locked picture on my film "Casino Jack," about Jack Abramoff and political corruption. My lawyers wrote a note to George Hickenlooper, who has decided to take the same name and use it for his own film about the same subject. We were first by a year; he knew I had already named the film "Casino Jack"; and yet he changed the name of his script from "Bagmen" to "CJ." Hard to understand.

Meanwhile Hickenlooper comments on Hollywood Elsewhere:

Gibney never got an interview with Abramoff. I had five prison interviews with Abramoff. Gibney is a very talented filmmaker, but without an interview with Abramoff in his movie, I think there might remain a question of balance.

I'm not sure why Gibney is threatening to sue me? I don't believe I've ever read anything on his film. I didn't even know it existed until Abramoff told me about it.

Responds Gibney in an email: "I was right: he learned about the title from Abramoff! What a hoot! His lawyers acknowledged that they knew about my film and my title before changing theirs from Bagmen to Casino Jack. Who does that?" Gibney has read Hickenlooper's script: "It's amusing, but factual it is not."

Meanwhile, Gibney has a lot on his plate. While the Abramoff movie is locked, he still has to finish up three more films for 2010: an untitled Lance Armstrong/Tour de France film for producer Frank Marshall and Sony Pictures and an independently-financed movie about disgraced governor Elliot Spitzer for A & E, which Gibney hopes to show at Tribeca this summer, which still hasn't sold theatrical rights. Also coming up is Magic Bus, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, portrayed in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which Gibney hopes to finish in time for Toronto next fall. He's been waiting for footage from the original trip to be restored, thanks to Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation. "It's beautiful," he says.

UPDATE: He may want to hurry: also in the works is Lance Black and Gus Van Sant's fiction film adaptation of Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

[Alex Gibney, top, George Hickenlooper, courtesy LAist.]

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More: Genres, News, Documentaries

13 Comments

  • frankr | November 21, 2009 2:17 AMReply

    Alex and George -
    Thanks for sharing the rounds of name calling and sniping with the general public. In terms of ego and privilege, I don't think either of you come off very well in this exchange. Perhaps next time you should each consult your agents, managers and lawyers before going public in this manner with a petty dispute.

  • Edward Wilson | November 19, 2009 12:48 AMReply

    Woah... You guys are making movies called Casino Jack? Me too! Only mine has nothing to do with Abramoff. It's based on a true experience I had at a nameless Las Vegas establishment where I thought I was paying for the services of a prostitute, but found out a little too late that she was a he. Maybe you guys are familiar with "her" too...

  • Hickenlooper | November 18, 2009 10:18 AMReply

    P.P.S.

    We were also graciously given access to Pam and Sarah Abramoff. I spoke to Emily Miller though she quickly stopped talking to me. Scanlon never returned calls but I was able to develop relationships with Safavian and Ring and a number of other Lobbyists close to Abramoff.

  • Hickenlooper | November 18, 2009 6:48 AMReply

    P.S.

    I met with Abramoff not to confirm any facts for our story. I met with him to get a sense of his character. To see what he is like. As you know, there is so little footage of him speaking, particularly privately. This was essential for us to make a narrative film. And it ultimately paved the way for a private meeting between Spacey and Abramoff which was so very important. It made a significant difference to our shooting script which you may have never read. GH

  • Hickenlooper | November 18, 2009 6:44 AMReply

    Alex,

    Thanks for your last email. I would prefer not to have this continued discourse in public. I have requested your friendship on Facebook. If you would kindly respond, I can send you a private email. Our projects are apples and oranges, really. Frankly, I could careless about the title of my film because my picture if very strong and works well as a dramatic satire. For all I care it could be called "Crazy Ass D.C. Story," but ultimately we will leave that decision to our distributor.

    I would like to talk to you, however, I suggest we start by showing each other our respective films and open up a potential dialogue.

    I hope to hear from you. I have also reached out to you through Heidi Leavitt and Jonathan Dana. They both have my info.

    Hope you are well.

    GH

  • DavidC | November 18, 2009 5:58 AMReply

    There's a much more interesting potential discussion lurking in the shadows here than the one about the title.

    What Hickenlooper seems to be suggesting is that Gibney is biased, and that CJ picked up on this and therefore refused to cooperate. Gibney. in turn, seems to be suggesting that because Hickenlooper is working closely with CJ he's probably being misled by this notorious flim flam artist and is unlikely to produce an accurate account.

    That would be a fist fight worth having.

  • Alex Gibney | November 18, 2009 3:03 AMReply

    Hey George:

    Jack didn't tell you everything. You might want to go back and ask him to fill you in on a few details he seems to have omitted.

    You're not thinking this through. You're missing half of CJ's angles. Protractor time.

    And this has nothing to do with my "legacy," whatever that is. If one colleague - whomever that may be - sees a title in use, it's customary not to take the same one.

    Hope you do the right thing.

    Best,

    Alex

  • Casino Jack | November 17, 2009 10:04 AMReply

    I think you're both acting like children in this matter, and if I were Sundance I'd probably not play either of your films because of it... but if I had to choose, Alex Gibney, as talented a documentarian as he is, is coming off as arrogant and entitled. Just suck it up and let the work speak for itself. Point to Hickenlooper for not coming off as a total jackass!

  • Brian | November 17, 2009 3:59 AMReply

    Y'know, I've seen fiction movies about Billy the Kid and documentaries about Billy the Kid. And they've both had "Billy the Kid" in the title. I've seen movies about Iwo Jima and documentaries about Iwo Jima and they both had Iwo Jima in the title.

    I don't think either of your projects will be hurt by both using Casino Jack. The fiction film could be called something dramatic like "The Adventures of Casino Jack," or "Casino Jack and the Temple of Doom" and the documentary could be called "Casino Jack: The Real Story" or the title Anne lists, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." (I would substitute a funnier or punchier word for money, e.g. "The United States of Cash" or "The United States of Gold," or a funnier word for "States," like "Casino Jack and The United Lobbyists of America" or something.) Work it out, fellas. No reason we can't see a drama AND a documentary.

    Of course, it's all a moot point with me, since I have no interest in the subject. Unless, of course, you cast Jason Statham and Megan Fox in the movie version. ;)

  • George H. | November 17, 2009 3:38 AMReply

    Alex,

    First, once Abramoff told me about your attempts to interview him and that you were doing a documentary, I was intrigued and looked up the project on IMDB. There was nothing listed. No title. Zero. Then when I did a tad more research the name of your film came up as something else. "House of Cards?" I can't remember. Perhaps you could remind me. The EandO carriers did their own title search but I never spoke to them about it and they never spoke to me once I requested the title "Casino Jack," Abramoff's well established nickname. I did not want to use the name because I thought I could capitalize on your great legacy, so for you to assume that we did a title search and I said Gibney's chosen a title and I want it, is ludicrous.

    At the same time once Abramoff told me that he would never give you an interview, I thought your project was dead. You have a number of things your working on and I assumed you would either put in on the backburner or wait for Abramoff to get out of prison. As a documentary filmmaker, it's what I would have done. Otherwise it feels to be like your just remaking Bill Moyer's film "Capitol Crimes." It might lack a bit of balance.

    Anyway, if you say I lack imagination for wanting the title, and if we both want the tile, then perhaps be both lack imagination. At least my imagination comes with five prison interviews with Abramoff.

    As far as facts go, I'm making a narrative film and not a documentary. As you stated the picture "amusingly" captures his story. My film captures the spirit of the truth, like any biopic.

    Anyway, dispite all the barbs which I am enjoying, in all sincerity I wish you luck on your picture. I do have a lot of respect for you as a filmmaker regardless of your slight overdose of entitlement and your mastery of Latin.

    Pax tecum, baby.

    Best,

    GH

  • Alex Gibney | November 17, 2009 12:48 AMReply

    Hickenlooper is as loose with the facts as his film is. The most salient fact here is that - regardless of what Hickenlooper says about how he "found" his title, and regardless of the fact that CJ was an Abramoff nickname - his representatives admit that a title search revealed that I was already making a film about the same subject with the title "Casino Jack." He decided to take that title anyway. At the very least, that shows a lack of imagination, which does not augur well.

    The arrogance here is not mine. Mista H took my title and assumed no one would notice. George Hubris Hickenlooper. Res Ipsa Loquitur.

  • George Hickenlooper | November 16, 2009 8:14 AMReply

    Hi Anne,

    Hope this email finds you well. I wish you would have sent me an email or called me for your story. I think it would have been fair.

    In my own view, I changed our project title before I knew about Gibney's film -- which I believe also had another title at one point called "House of Cards" or something close to that.

    Regardless, I chose the title "Casino Jack" because it was a well established nickname for Jack Abramoff while he was lobbying in the Beltway. In fact "Casino Jack" is referred to numerous times in both "Heist," "The Wrecking Crew," and The Bill Moyer's documentary on Abramoff "Capitol Crimes."

    In my view, Gibney is arrogantly acting like he made up the title and we stole it because we liked it. The reality is it was Abramoff's well established nickname. And without stating this fact, I believe your piece paints me as someone who stole the title -- which is untrue.

    Our project has already received plenty of publicity. Just check goolgle. We don't need any help from Mr. Gibney. Rather, he needs help from us.

    Thanks for listening.

    Sincerely,

    GH

  • Stupid Title | November 16, 2009 5:42 AMReply

    They should both change the title. What's so great about "Casino Jack"?

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