There’s no crossover between the 1996 Crash and the 2004 Crash – except the latter adopted the same title, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
Whilst David Cronenberg’s 1996 movie Crash became known in the UK in part for the huge Daily Mail campaign against the film, the psychological thriller always had a lot more to it than the tabloid attacks. It didn’t stop both newspapers such as the Mail and the Evening Standard campaigning to have the movie banned in the UK, yet their joint efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. If anything, they raised the profile of the movie, Cronenberg’s adaptation of the J G Ballard book of the same name.
It’s telling that the film, as it heads towards its 25th birthday, has been selected by Arrow for a deluxe new Blu-ray release, as well as it being one of the selection of films heading to Ultra HD 4K Blu-ray too. My former colleague, Ryan Lambie, has long been a devotee and huge fan of Cronenberg’s work, and when I alerted him to the new release, he in turn alerted me to a war of words that emerged over the film’s title.
Unsurprisingly, it bubbled up over the next high profile film to come along with the same title.
Writer/director Paul Haggis, in 2004, released his ensemble drama Crash, completely unrelated to Cronenberg’s movie and Ballard’s text. There was nothing to stop him using the title, with copyright law not allowing you to protect a title of a film under American law.
Similar laws and conventions are in place around the planet. As such, were I to come up with a new movie script and entitled the film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I could just about get away with.
What I couldn’t do was mirror Tarantino’s film of the same name, or in any way use its identity or similarity to its promotional materials to sell my masterpiece. And the biggest risk in using a film title that’s already known to audiences is it rarely tends to help your own project. Instead, it’s likely to confuse audiences if anything.
There’s often cited a glorious case of Warner Bros getting antsy in the 1940s when the Marx Brothers put together A Night In Casablanca, and when pushed by the studio Groucho Marx questioned the studio’s right to use ‘Warner Bros’, pointing out “professionally we were brothers long before you were”. Legend has changed the story over the years, and it’s worth reading the Snopes fact check article on it here.
But back to the story in hand. Haggis was, ultimately, able to press ahead with calling his own movie Crash, and there was precious little anyone could do to stop him doing so. His was going to be an entirely different film, with no crossover – outside of the title – with the earlier movie. There are many other examples, of course. The Keanu Reeves-headlined bomb on a bus action thriller Speed from 1994 has little to do with the 1936 film of the same name starring James Stewart trying to develop a new carburettor.
That said, David Cronenberg was mightily pissed off when he heard about it (the name of Paul Haggis’ film, not Speed or Stewart’s car). And there was none of that having a quiet word behind the scenes about his response, either. He called it out, and he called it out publicly. I’m grateful to the website Ballardian for pulling together the quotes.
“I thought it was very disrespectful”, he was quoted as saying in the New York Post. “Not just to me, but to J G Ballard who wrote the book Crash in 1973, which is very famous”. He went on to point out that in France, the name of Haggis’ film had to change (to Collision), due to the “reverence for that book and for my movie”.
Cronenberg added in the same article that “I don’t know how I would react if I met Paul Haggis. He’s also Canadian. You know, we’re basically peaceful people, but there was the fur trade, and it got nasty”.
It’s unknown whether Cronenberg and Haggis ever met up to have a conversation about the title, but it would have been fascinating to be the proverbial fly on the wall for that conversation.
Cronenberg, meanwhile, did consider legal action against Haggis’ decision – the story being that Haggis couldn’t come up with another name for his film – but he seemed to accept in an interview with Slate that it was all a bit moot. “The last thing a creative person wants is litigation, which is anti-creative”, he argued. But he was still sore about the matter, not incorrectly arguing that two films called Crash side by side when they got to the DVD shelves was just going to cause a confusion.
Crash, of course, would go on to – surprisingly – win the Best Picture Oscar in 2005. Whilst it’s a film that has its fans, that it prevailed over films such as Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Good Night And Good Luck and Capote remains something of an upset. If you’re interested in Haggis’ film, it’s very much worth reading Thandie Newton’s superb Vulture interview, where she reflects less than favourably on her experience making the movie.
As for Cronenberg’s film? It may have failed to trouble the Academy Awards, but also, it escaped censorship in the UK, and it’s getting the kind of deluxe catalogue disc treatment that the other Crash isn’t. A little victory there, perhaps. Although I’d suspect Cronenberg is calmer about the matter now anyway…
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