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Fox snarls at Cast Away comedy featuring Jackson

Los Angeles, May 31: Twentieth Century Fox has sent a cease-and-desist letter to an independent filmmaker who parodied its movie Cast Away in a comedy titled Miss Cast Away, which features a 10-minute appearance by Michael Jackson.

The movie was shot in September 2003, two months before the police raided Jackson’s estate near Santa Barbara, California, and arrested him on charges of sexual misconduct with a child.

The movie’s writer and director, Bryan Michael Stoller, a friend of Jackson, said he believed the studio was trying to quash his film to avoid association with the tainted pop star.

“Michael Jackson is in it, and he’s always been a target,” Stoller said. “I guess they feel it will get a lot of exposure because of him. And I think they’re just bullying the independent filmmaker because they can.”

A spokeswoman for Fox said the letter seeking to block the film “speaks for itself” and had nothing to do with Jackson.

In the letter, which demands that Stoller change the title of his film, a Fox lawyer, Jon Del Barrio, wrote, “The distinctive and famous Cast Away title has clearly achieved secondary meaning among the public, and as such has attained trademark rights associated with its use.”

The letter added: “We hereby demand that you immediately cease and desist from further use of the Cast Away mark or any other name that is confusingly similar to the Cast Away mark.”

Parodies are common in Hollywood, from Loaded Weapon, a spoof of Lethal Weapon, to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, a spoof of James Bond, to Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, a spoof of movies like Boyz the Hood. Stoller said he had done a copyright search and found that Fox had no trademark on the title.

There have been many movies with similar titles in the past, including a 2002 Woody Allen short called Castaway: A Woody Allen Film, and a 1986 United Artists romance called Castaway. A movie from 1912 is called The Castaway, and a 1931 Mickey Mouse film is also titled The Castaway.

Last year Fox News sued the left-wing political satirist Al Franken to stop him from using “fair and balanced,” a catchphrase employed by the network, in the title of his book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. A judge ruled against the news channel, and the book was published as planned.

Stoller’s $2 million movie, which has many special effects, is a parody of both Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock as an undercover FBI agent at a beauty pageant, and Cast Away, a 2000 film in which Tom Hanks is a FedEx employee who ends up on a deserted island after a plane crash.

It is about a group of beauty pageant contestants who crash land on an island. Jackson plays Agent MJ, descending in a beam of light to save the contestants. That appearance parodies a brief cameo by Jackson in Men in Black II, in which he played Agent M.

“I thought it would be funny to make him agent MJ, an Obi-Wan-Kenobi-type guy who gives them advice,” Stoller said.

Since his arrest and indictment, Jackson has been virtually unemployable in the entertainment industry. He is free on $3 million bail and awaits trial.

Stoller screened the movie for potential distributors in April but has not sent tapes to other possible distributors because of the letter. He said he could not afford a lawyer to fight the action by Fox and did not want to change the title because the movie had already received press attention as a result of Jackson’s participation in it.

In a follow-up letter on May 4, another Fox lawyer, Robert B. Cohen, wrote, “The alleged parodic nature of your film does not extend to your film’s title”. He added, “A parody must make comment on the underlying material that it parodies”.

Stoller said his movie did exactly that. “They’re playing God,” he said. “I can’t afford a lawyer right now. I can’t get errors and omissions insurance. No distributor will pick it up. They’ve pretty much killed the movie unless I change the title.”

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