Battle Heats Up Over Ownership Of ‘Worst Movie Ever Made’

By January 30, 2017

Joe Warren was in grade school the first time his father let him see Manos: The Hands of Fate. This was the movie his dad – insurance salesman-turned-independent film producer Harold P. Warren – made for less than $20,000 on a bet.

Yet, even to his son back then, Manos seemed destined for what has become one of its more infamous designations today: the worst film ever made.

“I didn’t know much about the movie, so I sat and watched it, but was not very interested in it after seeing my parents’ parts. He asked me what I thought about it, and I told him that I didn’t like it, and he laughed.”

But Joe’s father didn’t give up. He explained the concept of the film, the characters, the storyline, even how it was made. And the more Harold shared, the more Joe became interested.

Now, more than 50 years after Manos: The Hands of Fate was first introduced to audiences, Joe Warren told GeekNation he is working to protect his father’s legacy by trademarking the title of the film. The goal? To prevent people from using Harold Warren’s work “against him in an attempt to poke fun for the sake of making money and not for entertainment.”

“I want to make sure that anything produced under the auspices of the movie is done so in the same vein in which it was created.”

“The trademark is just another way of protecting my dad’s work, vision, ideas and future. Only he and he alone could know what he wanted with regards to any derivative works, and since he is not here, it is left to those that knew him the best to make these decisions based on what we know he would want.”

But the idea of trademarking the title of the film is not going over well with others who have found themselves part of the Manos fan community, which exploded after Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured the film in an episode that originally aired 24 years ago Monday. One of those detractors is Jackey Neyman Jones, who played the part of 6-year-old Debbie, and whose father Tom Neyman was the title character, known as The Master.

In fact, she’s raising money to mount a legal challenge against Warren’s trademark application, fearing it could damage or even destroy a community that has come together to celebrate the little film that was. It’s a community that includes stage productions, dramatic readings, artwork and even a puppet-based parody known as Manos: The Hands of Felt.

“Joe doesn’t seem to get it. He wants to possess it and be in control. But the whole reason the movie is what it is, is because the people have had the freedom to explore Manos and be inspired by it, and be creative with it.

“It could not be anything that it is today if anyone had owned any part of it.”

The common belief is the film has fallen into public domain, something even Warren himself admits. While his father had indeed intended to register copyrights, he only did so for the script and not the film itself. Holding the film copyrights, according to legal observers, Warren certainly would have control over derivative works and how the film is treated. Without it, Manos simply is a film that belongs to the public.

Getting control will be difficult, and something Warren likely won’t find through his trademark application, said James L. Gannon II, an intellectual property attorney with Montgomery McCracken in Philadelphia, who specializes in patents, trademarks and copyrights.

“The first thing to keep in mind is the difference between a copyright and a trademark. Copyrights protect original works of authorship (artistic creations), whereas trademarks protect brands and other indicia of origin.

“To keep things in the literary world, Goosebumps is a federally registered trademark of Scholastic Inc. Under this brand, Scholastic has offered a series of books and stories. The brand is protected by trademark, which prevents others from selling books using that name or any name which is confusingly similar.

“The stories and characters are protected by copyright, which prevents others from copying the stories … or creating ‘derivative works’ based upon the stories themselves.”

Warren can file for trademark of the Manos title because anyone can do so as long as they either currently use the mark in commerce, or they have a “bona fide intent to do so,” Gannon told GeekNation. For this particular application filed last October, Warren admits he’s currently not using the mark, but said he intends to.

While the trademark would prevent anyone from using Manos: The Hands of Fate as a title, it wouldn’t restrict anything else – like the story, the characters, even the film itself.

That will take gaining control of the copyright – a process most say is practically impossible for something that has fallen into public domain. Yet, Warren says he’s not only paying attorneys $400 an hour to help him get control, but he’s getting help from an unlikely source: RiffTrax.

Chances are you’ve heard of the people behind RiffTrax, if not the company itself. It’s owned by former Mystery Science Theater 3000 host and head writer Mike Nelson, as well as his two comedian sidekicks from the show, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, who voiced Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo.

The company creates audio tracks of the three (and other guests) “riffing” on movies, as if they were heckling from the theater seats. It’s similar to the MST3K format, except those buying the audio tracks need to sync them up to their own copy of a movie the group is poking fun of.

Warren says he’s licensed some aspects of Manos to RiffTrax, primarily outtakes from the film. Warren added he never collected any money from the licensing, but it did allow RiffTrax to offer an incentive to customers to buy their comedic take on the film.

Interesting enough, while Nelson was the head writer of MST3K when Manos originally appeared on the series, in 1993 it was still hosted by creator Joel Hodgson. Murphy was voicing Tom Servo by then, but Crow was actually played by his longtime voice actor Trace Beaulieu.

David Martin, the chief executive of RiffTrax – and its fourth partner – told GeekNation in a statement his company has a “great partnership with Joe Warren.”

“While we encourage anyone to do their own legal research, we do believe based on the facts as we know them that Joe has a legitimate claim to ownership of the movie based on the underlying rights. We’re big fans of Manos and feel privileged to have been able to riff it.”

Warren repeatedly says his efforts to control Manos has nothing to do with money. However, RiffTrax is a commercial enterprise which, according to Pitchbook, already has raised $5 million in venture capital through 2014. Warren refused to share details of his partnership with RiffTrax, except to add that his attorneys are working closely with those from RiffTrax in this entire operation.

Martin later told GeekNation RiffTrax has not raised venture capital, and the Pitchbook listing may refer to the company’s former parent, Legend Films, which secured $5 million from investors in September 2008. In a news release issued at the time of the investment, Legend said the funds would be used for a few divisions of the company, including RiffTrax.

Yet, none of that should distract from Warren’s belief his father is owed something for the contributions he made in the development of Manos.

“Regardless of what you think of the movie, it was his creation. All of it: movie, title, characters, ideas, music, everything. And as such, his estate has the right to see what comes of it.”

Yet, Neyman disputes some of the creation aspects behind the film. In fact, she claims many individual elements were generated through collaborative efforts of everyone involved. The title, for example, was something she said her father actually thought up … as a joke.

“The title of Hal’s script was ‘Fingers of Fate.’ That was the working title. And in a production meeting, it was my father that came up with the whole Manos: The Hands of Fate.”

“He had suggested the title while thinking about some of the artwork he had made before the film that could be used in it, like some of the hand sculptures you see. My dad thought the title was funny, because it was redundant – ‘manos’ means ‘hands,’ so it’s literally ‘Hands: The Hands of Fate.’ And they decided to keep it.”

At the moment, Warren’s trademark application is heading into something known as a “30-day opposition period,” trademark attorney Gannon said. It’s only after this period that a trademark can be “allowed” and subsequently registered. Anyone who feels they would be damaged by Warren gaining the trademark can file papers opposing the registration.

Neyman believes her entire Manos community would indeed be damaged, especially her plans to release an independent sequel her father and other surviving cast members filmed last year called Manos Returns. The film has yet to be released, and Neyman’s father died last November after filming was complete.

Neyman started a crowdfunding campaign to raise some $7,000 that would help cover legal fees in opposing the trademark application.

“He’s only trying to trademark the words, but it’s the principal of it. And it’s very personal to me.”

If Neyman and her supporters fail to stop the trademark application, all is not lost, Gannon added. Even after the trademark is awarded, third parties like Neyman can file paperwork to demand the trademark be cancelled.

Warren is well aware of some of the backlash to his trademark, and even hesitated to speak to GeekNation because of what people are saying. But those who think he’s doing it for the money – there isn’t much that can be made, Warren said. Instead, it’s all about protecting the brand and the reputation of his father, who died in 1985.

“I don’t make it a habit of trolling around the Web. Honestly, most of the people saying they are out to promote the film and protect it have such negative and disgusting things to say about my dad, and sometimes me, that I try to avoid much of the things you find on the Web. 

“For people out to protect the movie, they are sure into themselves, and interestingly, have no interest in hearing about my dad or any other of his projects, or seeing some of the amazing memorabilia I have.”

As of Sunday night, Neyman’s crowdfunding efforts raised just under $2,000 of its goal from more than 70 backers. Any opposition to the trademark application must be filed by the end of March.

Story updated to clarify venture capital funding for RiffTrax.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael began what has become nearly 19 years of entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based out of New York City where he is the editor of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper in the Bronx.
  • Tony Trombo

    I have a few thoughts on this…

  • Space Cowboy

    Joe is a d-bag. The Master would NOT approve.

  • Cynthia Celeste Miller

    Joe has harassed Jackey numerous times in the past in various online forums and social media.

    As for Manos fans saying awful things about Hal Warren, I’m sure there are some who have done that, but most of us respect the hell out of Mr. Warren for his massive part in making Manos what it is.

  • John Ikarus

    Worst movie ever made?
    Battlefield Earth !