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Oh bother! Viral ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ horror film triggers fans

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The characters of Winnie-the-Pooh were originally created by A.A. Milne and illustrated by E.H. Shepard./AFP
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Feb 10, 2023 - 09:13 AM

LOS ANGELES — You know him as a cute, cuddly bear, but Winnie the Pooh is about to receive a terrifying makeover as the knife-wielding villain of a blood-drenched new slasher film — no joke.

Pooh’s shocking reinvention — which hits US theaters next Wednesday and has already provoked death threats from enraged fans — could break box office records and test the limits of intellectual property law.

“Look, this is mental,” said Rhys Frake-Waterfield, the 31-year-old director of “Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.”

“I’ve had petitions to stop it. I’ve had death threats. I’ve had people saying they called the police,” he told AFP.

While Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore’s family-friendly big-screen adventures have been licensed to Disney for decades, the copyright on the first A.A. Milne books recently expired — and Frake-Waterfield’s tiny British indie studio pounced on the opportunity.

The first images of “Blood and Honey,” in which a sinister, human-sized Pooh and Piglet hovered menacingly behind a young woman relaxing in a hot tub, quickly went viral last year.

Now the live-action film — made on a shoestring budget of less than $250,000 — is set for a major global theatrical release.

It is already out in Mexico, where it has made nearly $1 million in two weeks, and some industry analysts are tipping it to become one of the most profitable films of all time.

Frake-Waterfield originally hoped his film “might do a mini theatrical run in certain areas.”

He now believes it could achieve the highest “budget-to-box office ratio” since “Paranormal Activity,” the $15,000 film that launched a near $1 billion franchise over a decade ago.

“I really believed in the idea. Other people didn’t… and now it’s doing all right,” he joked.

‘Un-family friendly’ 

Under US law, copyrights expire 95 years after a work is first published. The first “Winnie-the-Pooh” book came out in 1926.

However, there are caveats, especially when a character evolves over time.

Distinctive traits that were added to Pooh in later books or Disney films, such as his red shirt or fondness for playing the game Poohsticks, have not yet entered the public domain.

Similarly, Pooh’s friend Tigger did not appear until later books, and so could not appear in “Blood and Honey.”

And then there is the issue of trademark.

Copyrights prevent the unlicensed copying of the creative work itself, for example books, films and characters. They expire after a set time.

Trademarks guard the source of a work, preventing anyone else from making a product that could mislead consumers into thinking it came from the original author. They can be renewed indefinitely.

“You can’t suggest that somehow it’s sponsored by or affiliated or associated with Disney in any way, because Disney still does have robust trademark protection,” said copyright lawyer Aaron J. Moss.

In this instance, the absurdity of making a Pooh horror movie helps the film’s producers.

“Simply because it is so un-family friendly, and isn’t anything that (viewers) would expect Disney to have anything to do with, that would make any potential trademark claim much more difficult to assert,” he said.

Frake-Waterfield said there was never any desire to skirt as close to Disney’s Pooh as legally possible.

“It’s literally the opposite. I want to go as far away from them as possible,” he said.

“I want Winnie the Pooh to be big and menacing and scary and intimidating and horrifying. I don’t want him to be small and cuddly and cute.”

‘Million’ dollar offer 

In the film, Pooh and Piglet have been left infuriated, abandoned and feral by the departure of Christopher Robin — now a young adult — and go on a murderous rampage.

An AFP reporter at a screening in Mexico City this week said many audience members appeared to be leaving the theater disappointed, with Jonathan Ortiz, 32, describing the film as “very bad.”

But neither the plot nor critical response are likely to matter much.

Hype around the movie is so substantial that Frake-Waterfield is already preparing a sequel — as well as horror movies based on “Bambi” and “Peter Pan” books.

“One person literally yesterday was like, ‘Do you want a million to make a film? Just tell me the concept and we will just go ahead with it,'” he said.

“That’s really hard to get. It’s hard to get funding for any film, but people are starting to really try and engage.”

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