Biopic feasts on McDonald's imagery

Michael Keaton (centre) as McDonald's founder Ray Kroc in The Founder.
Michael Keaton (centre) as McDonald's founder Ray Kroc in The Founder.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LOS ANGELES • The Founder, an unauthorised biopic starring Michael Keaton as McDonald's Corp founder Ray Kroc, uses the fast-food giant's well-guarded iconography for a bold visual tour of the chain's early days.

"If it's a biopic of anything, it's of the McDonald's brand and restaurants rather than Ray," said John Lee Hancock, who directed the film set for release in the United States on Aug 5.

McDonald's, like most corporations, maintains close control of its corporate imagery. And it would have reason to keep an eye on The Founder, with its ambivalent portrayal of Kroc, an archetypal postwar businessman who begs to join brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in transforming their small California company and is left in control of the fast-food chain.

But Hancock and a film-making team that includes FilmNation Entertainment were supported by First Amendment protection and concepts of "fair use" that generally permit incorporation of trademarks in art - within limits.

Andy Warhol was sued by Campbell Soup Co for his use of its logo, but the company dropped the litigation and came to view his works as free publicity.

In a movie biography, said Ms Valerie Barreiro, who teaches intellectual property at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, "I would imagine that any use would likely meet the fair-use standard", as long as the film does not falsely portray McDonald's and treads carefully with trademarks in its marketing materials.

Perhaps not by accident, a prominent poster for The Founder portrays only a portion of the current McDonald's logo, where the Golden Arches converge to form the middle of an M.

To date, according to Hancock and others, McDonald's has made no attempt to interfere with The Founder. To do so would risk inadvertently promoting the film.

In a similar situation, Facebook chose not to fight an unflattering portrayal of its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in the 2010 movie, The Social Network.

Mr Robert Gibbs, global chief communications officer for McDonald's, declined to comment on The Founder, its use of company trademarks or its least complimentary claim about Kroc: that he reneged on a handshake deal to pay the McDonald brothers a percentage of his revenue as part of a 1961 agreement in which he purchased their company for US$2.7 million.

In his 1977 autobiography, Grinding It Out, Kroc did not mention the supposedly promised royalty in his summary of the deal's terms. But he said the McDonald brothers reneged on an oral promise to include their original restaurant in the sale.

The Founder is based on a script by Robert Siegel, who wrote The Wrestler (2008). Keaton, nominated for an Oscar last year for Birdman, plays Kroc as a complicated beast, wrapping boundless optimism and heedless drive into a single, half-endearing package.

Hancock said: "I couldn't remember reading a script where I was pulling so hard for the protagonist in the first half, then questioning my feeling for him in the second."

He added that The Founder's script struck him as being distinctive, in that it set out to portray the history of both a business and an industry, much as Citizen Kane (1941) described the rise of modern newspapers and The Big Short (2015) tackled Wall Street's role in the housing crisis.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'Biopic feasts on McDonald's imagery'. Print Edition | Subscribe