Vera Drew Finally Sets the Record Straight on the Controversy of 'The People’s Joker'

After being pulled from TIFF amidst rumours of a cease and desist, the Joker parody is finally seeing the light of day

Photo courtesy of Altered Innocence.

BY Rachel HoPublished Apr 12, 2024

To most, the story of The People's Joker began when news came out of TIFF 2022 that the film was being pulled from the festival following its premiere in the coveted Midnight Madness section. Rumours flew for the next few hours and days that Warner Bros. had supposedly served director Vera Drew with a cease and desist letter. In the weeks that followed, The People's Joker was still the talk of the film industry as Drew withdrew the film from a flurry of subsequent film festivals.

Fast forward just over two and a half years later, and Drew's coming-of-age-trans-parody-superhero film has officially been released in theatres across North America, including a return to Toronto starting April 12, with seemingly no pushback from the powers that be at the WB.

So, what happened? How did a film that caused tsunami-like waves during TIFF experience a peaceful theatrical release without any substantive changes (save for a character recasting) and without any further public legal proceedings?

"I'd love to set the record straight — I've been trying to for years now," Drew says, settling in over Zoom.

For Drew, her and her film's relationship with TIFF began in 2021 when Peter Kuplowsky — currently the International Programmer for the Midnight Madness section — contacted Drew about submitting the film to the festival for consideration. The film wasn't ready yet, but Drew had a bigger concern: "Who the fuck is this guy?" she laughs. "Who's this random man [who] seems very cis and just seems like a random internet guy?"

Ultimately, Kuplowsky and Drew became acquainted, and the TIFF programmer's encouragement gave Drew the motivation she needed and a deadline to work towards. After the film was completed, Drew sent it off to Kuplowsky but didn't hear back "for a while."

"I was starting to get a little bummed out. He didn't like it, it didn't get in," Drew says listing off her assumptions for the radio silence. "I was listening to [the Beach Boys' record] Pet Sounds a lot. There's the song on there, 'I Just Wasn't Made for These Times,' I was listening to over and over again, and just crying all the time."

Finally, on a trip to Joshua Tree, Drew received an email from Kuplowky that declared his love for the film, assuring Drew that he was doing everything he could to convince his boss, his boss's bosses, sponsors — everyone who needed to sign off on adding the film to the festival. As Drew remembers it, Kuplowsky was confident he'd be able to get the green light, but also warned the filmmaker that it wouldn't be easy: "For the reasons you can probably imagine, it's going to be a little bit of a road to get there."

Those reasons, of course, are that The People's Joker explicitly uses DC Comics characters — it's in the title after all. Drew realizes a dystopian world in which a young child grows up in a universe populated with people like Dr. Crane and Ra's al Ghul. Eventually, our protagonist moves to Gotham City, where they're initially designated as a male Joker. Throughout the film, we go on a journey with our hero who, after crossing paths with Jason Todd, is able to express that she is a transgender woman.

The People's Joker tows that fine line between outright copyright infringement and parody — the latter being legally acceptable with arguments of fair use — that many films before it, such as Scary Movie, Naked Gun and Hot Shots!, have successfully balanced.

For Drew's part, she is and was well aware of the legal implications associated with her film, and worked with a lawyer at the script stage to ensure everything was above board.

"I knew what I was doing," she says. "When the idea crystallized to make this, [we knew] this was really risky. People could really perceive this as infringement just by even having the word 'Joker' in the title. I wanted to make it according to parody law and fair use, and I was really confident that we could."

As Drew continued to wait for TIFF's decision, she decided to receive legal counsel again, specifically wanting a legal opinion that she could present to TIFF and any subsequent festival or theatre that wanted to screen the film. Working with Donaldson Callif Perez LLP in Los Angeles, they combed through every element of the film, identifying how each aspect could be characterized as parody and/or fair use. Drew believes this opinion was what gave TIFF the confidence to officially move forward.

On September 12, 2022, around 10:00 pm, the night before The People's Joker was scheduled to have its world premiere, Drew received a phone call from her manager while out in Toronto celebrating the eve of her premiere and a successful press day. Drew's manager informed her that they had received some correspondence and, potentially, the premiere would be cancelled.

Here's the part of the story that Drew would especially like to clear up: "We never got an official cease and desist, it was misreported," she explains. "What I did get was a strongly worded letter, an email basically, from Warner Bros.' legal department that was just like, 'Hey, we don't think this is a parody and we think it infringes on our brand. Moving forward, we want you to show this letter to any festival that wants to play it and any distributor that wants to buy it.'"

She adds, "I can't stress enough: WB never spent any money on litigation. They've never done anything beyond just sending us that letter."

In a strange twist of events, Drew recalls how she had actually pitched a show to Warner's animation team a year before, in 2021, and during that meeting mentioned to the executive producers that she was in the process of making a Joker parody movie. Those producers, and other creatives she met at the studio, all responded in the same way: "Anytime I would bring this up to people that worked for Warner Bros. at a top creative level, they would be like, 'I know, I heard! It sounds so cool. I can't wait to see your take on this.'"

After receiving this letter, Drew's agents and team tried to convince her to pull the film from TIFF immediately. Instead, Drew reached out to Peter Kuplowsky, the initial TIFF advocate, who assured Drew that The People's Joker would screen the next day no matter what, whether it was through TIFF or in a Toronto theatre outside of the festival.

The day of the premiere, Kuplowsky and the then-co-head of TIFF (now CEO), Cameron Bailey, got on the horn attempting to get in touch with anyone from Warner Bros. Eventually a top executive at Warner Bros. Canada (whose name Drew cannot recall) gave the film the okay. "I think reality might have settled in, at least for him, that the genie's already coming out of the bottle here," Drew guesses. "Seven-hundred tickets sold for this movie, they waited until the night before — it's a little too late for this."

However, the go-ahead for the premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre did come with a compromise on Drew's part: following the premiere, all subsequent screenings during TIFF, including ones for press and industry, would be pulled.

"I did that knowing we would have this premiere, and it would go well. [That] it'd be well received," Drew explains.

Sure enough, the film was a hit in its midnight slot, and the next day Drew's name and The People's Joker were all over the trades, reporting that WB was suppressing this indie film. And, after heeding the advice of her manager, Drew made the difficult decision to pull the film from eight other festivals following TIFF.

Drew's first TIFF experience certainly didn't go as planned or expected — which is almost fitting considering that she made the film only with the intent of just showing it to her friends and those who helped her put it together. "My expectations for what the project was going to be were so beneath what it ended up being," she reflects. "I was not ready for that level of exposure. I'm still, in many ways, not ready for this level of exposure at this stage in my career."

The comedown after TIFF, which Drew describes as similar to getting "hit in the head with a baseball bat," and the festival circuit pause, gave the filmmaker some time to touch up the movie. But, in that time, big distributors — whom Drew chooses not to name — withdrew their interest in acquiring the film, which naturally was a source of disappointment at the time.

The story of The People's Joker does indeed have a happy ending, though, professionally and spiritually for Drew.

After a brief period in limbo, Drew decided to host secret screenings of the movie, and the film eventually had its first public-facing screening during Outfest last July. The People's Joker was eventually picked up by Altered Innocence, a distribution company specializing in queer cinema, and Drew has toured around a few cities and meeting fans as the theatrical release rolls out.

"It feels really good," Drew remarks. "I'm really back in a place where there's a sense of peace. You're gonna land where you're supposed to land."

It's striking that, for all the pitfalls and legal turnarounds Drew experienced, in her recounting of the film's journey, there is never a sense of bitterness or resentment towards Warner Bros. — simply an understanding of how the business works and gratitude for those who stuck by her.

"I understand why they don't like [the movie]. They don't want to set a precedent that people can go ahead and do this. I get it," says Drew. "Part of taking risks with your art is protecting yourself and protecting your art by advocating for it, and knowing how you can advocate for it. I've been very fortunate to, as a result of making this film, find people that were able to be in my corner to really help us get it out there."

While Drew truly doesn't exhibit any enmity, she does allow herself one small smug reminder of this entire debacle:

"One of the primary sponsors [of Outfest] was Warner Bros. Discovery," Drew says with a grin. "So there's pictures of me on the red carpet for the U.S. premiere standing underneath the Warner Bros. logo. I have pictures of that hanging on my wall at home, just because it feels good."

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