By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 15, 2009 at 9:42AM
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.
"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.]