‘People’s Joker,’ Queer Movie Set in Batman Universe, Pulled From TIFF Over ‘Rights Issues’

UPDATE: The director of “The People’s Joker,” a queer coming-of-age story set in the Batman universe, has pulled the movie from the Toronto International Film Festival over alleged “rights issues,” but tells Variety that audiences will be able to see the film in due course.

Helmed by Los Angeles-based director Vera Drew, the mixed-media movie follows an aspiring clown (played by Drew) grappling with her gender identity while dreaming of being cast in a TV sketch show among a cast of Jokers and Harlequins.

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An official synopsis from TIFF reads: “With comedy criminalized in Gotham City, the show is the only government-sanctioned space for funny people, but only those who will toe the party line. Disillusioned by a botched audition, Vera partners with a birdlike slacker to found their own alternative comedy troupe, attracting not only a rogues’ gallery of would-be comics, but also the ire of a fascistic caped crusader.”

Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns DC Comics and holds the rights to the Batman universe, hasn’t yet commented on the film, though it appears the studio may have issued a cease-and-desist to block the movie’s three further screenings at TIFF, which have now been canceled. Variety has contacted Warner Bros. Discovery for clarification and comment.

In a statement shared with Variety on Wednesday evening, Drew promised that “everyone is going to get the chance to see this film.”

“I don’t respond well to bullying or pressure from faceless institutions,” said Drew. “It only emboldens me and what I was saying with this film. We’re looking for buyers and distribution partners who will protect us and make this film accessible to trans people and their families everywhere.”

Drew hinted at potential discord around the movie on Tuesday, ahead of her world premiere, posting a cryptic tweet: “I have no clue how today goes and my team wants me to say nothing of course so I’ll stay vague…but whatever happens in the next few hours, I want you to know…if you’ve been waiting and aching to watch our movie, ur going to get to soon. Stay tuned and stay with me. Need ur help.”

Just before the movie rolled, The Globe and Mail reported that a title card was displayed stating that the film was protected under “fair use” laws.

“This film is a parody and is at present time completely unauthorized by DC Comics, Warner Brothers or anyone claiming ownership of the trademarks therein (eg. ‘Joker,’ ‘Batman, etc.),” read the title card. “Aside from licensed stock, all video and graphics featured in the film are original materials, often recreations of iconic comic book movie set pieces created by Vera Drew and a team of over 100 independent artists and filmmakers on three separate continents during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Any copyright or trademark infringement was not done intentionally. After consulting with counsel, the director believes in good faith that use of these names and characters in a autobiographical context of her personal coming-out story is protected by Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, which allows ‘fair use’ for purposes such as a relevant criticism, social commentary or education.”

The film, which is being sold by UTA, was programmed as part of the fest’s popular Midnight Madness series. “The People’s Joker” screened on Tuesday night to delighted fans. The film drew positive buzz on social media after the screening.

The Canadian Press reported on Wednesday that in a post-screening Q&A, Drew said she had edited out scenes from the 2019 film “Joker” that were previously included.

In a statement on the title’s official TIFF page, the festival shared that the “filmmaker has withdrawn this film due to rights issues. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

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