Budweiser and Stolichnaya fuming over starring role with drunk pilot

Hero pilot drunk on Stolichnaya and Bud is bad for our responsible image, say firms, as they ask Paramount to take them out of the picture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2012, 4:10am

Denzel Washington's character in Flight drinks a lot, but his portrayal of a highly functioning alcoholic pilot isn't going down well with brewing company Anheuser-Busch or the distributor of Stolichnaya vodka. Anheuser-Busch has asked Paramount Pictures to obscure or remove the Budweiser logo from the film, released last week, which at one point shows Washington's character drinking the beer while behind the wheel.

Budweiser is hardly the only alcoholic beverage shown in Flight, which earned US$25 million in its debut weekend and is likely to remain popular with audiences. Washington plays an airline pilot who, despite being hung over, drunk and coked up, manages to bring down a rapidly deteriorating plane in a daring emergency landing on what should have been a routine flight between Orlando, Florida, and Atlanta.

William Grant & Sons, which distributes Stolichnaya in the United States, also said it didn't licence its brand for inclusion in the film and wouldn't have given permission if asked.

Budweiser vice-president Rob McCarthy said the company wasn't contacted by Paramount or the production company of director Robert Zemeckis for permission to use the beer in Flight.

"We would never condone the misuse of our products, and have a long history of promoting responsible drinking," McCarthy said. "We have asked the studio to obscure the Budweiser trademark in current digital copies of the movie and on all subsequent adaptations of the film."

A spokesman for Zemeckis referred questions to Paramount, which did not return an e-mail message seeking comment.

James Curich, a spokesman for Stoli distributor William Grant & Sons, said the company had a strict code for how the vodka was portrayed in films and was committed to marketing it responsibly. "Considering the subject matter of this film, it is not something in which we would have participated," he said.

Despite the companies' dissatisfaction with their inclusion in the film, experts say there is little they can do about it legally.

Trademark laws "don't exist to give companies the right to control and censor movies and TV shows that might happen to include real-world items", said Daniel Nazer, of Stanford Law School's Fair Use Project.

"It is the case that often filmmakers get paid by companies to include their products. I think that's sort of led to a culture where they expect they'll have control. That's not a right the trademark law gives them."

Jay Dougherty, a professor at Loyola Law School, said the use of brands in films had generally been protected by the courts, even when the companies weren't pleased with the portrayals.

"It wouldn't have been as effective if we used a bunch of non-generic brands," said Doughterty, who is also the director of the school's Entertainment & Media Law Institute. "In a normal situation, if the alcohol were just there as a smaller part of the movie, they might have created an artificial brand for it."

Other vodka brands, including Absolut and Smirnoff, are also included in the film. Representatives of those companies did not return messages seeking comment.