Apple Bans Bad Guys From Using iPhones in Movies, Says Knives Out Director

Jamie Lee Curtis....is not the bad guy because she has an iPhone.
Jamie Lee Curtis....is not the bad guy because she has an iPhone.
Screenshot: Vanity Fair (https://youtu.be/69GjaVWeGQM)

Apple rules over its brand image with an iron fist—and that extends to the silver screen. In a Vanity Fair interview, Knives Out and The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson revealed that Apple won’t let villains and bad guys use iPhones onscreen. An interesting tidbit, but one that has the potential to spoil mystery movies and twists going forward.

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The revelation came as part of Vanity Fair’s Notes on a Scene series, in which filmmakers break down scenes and share anecdotes from their latest projects. In the video, Johnson is just starting to explain a fraught family bickering session in Knives Out when he notes the iPhone in actress Jamie Lee Curtis’s hand.

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“I don’t know if I should say this or not...not ‘cause it’s like, lascivious or something, but because it’s going to screw me on the next mystery movie that I write,” Johnson starts out. “Apple, they let you use iPhones in movies but—and this is very pivotal if you’re ever watching a mystery movie—bad guys cannot have iPhones on camera. So, oh no! Every single filmmaker that has a bad guy in their movie that’s supposed to be a secret wants to murder me right now.”

Whoops! Then again, Johnson’s reveal isn’t that surprising. Apple is notorious for how its devices are portrayed in media. You might remember years of TV shows in which characters are clearly using MacBooks, only to have the iconic Apple logo on the lids covered by some sort of sticker. It’s also a common trope that bad guys use Android while good guys use iPhones. According to MacRumors and Wired, the spy show 24 also visibly reinforced bad guys using Windows, versus good guys using Apple devices. Part of that might stem from Apple’s guidelines for trademarks and copyrights. Under the section on compatibility, the guidelines state that “The Apple product is shown only in the best light, in a manner or context that reflects favorably on the Apple products and on Apple Inc.”

This all plays into the narrative that Apple likes to keep a squeaky clean image. Its new Apple TV+ streaming service was reported to have a $1 billion budget but rumors have it that Apple has nixed or interfered with shows on its platform that stray from the family-friendly line. The result is a, for the most part, bland lineup that some have dubbed ‘expensive NBC.’

In any case, Johnson’s reveal might be useful for those of us who like to figure out plot twists ahead of time. Perhaps, there truly is a hidden meaning if a character texts and the recipient responds with green bubbles. But if you love being surprised by twists, maybe try not to pay attention to the type of phone characters are using.

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Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

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DISCUSSION

theghostofjimmadison
The Ghost of James Madison's Rage Boner

IP lawyer here. Let me explain what’s actually going on.

Apple cannot, in fact, dictate incidental use of its products in a work of fiction. Trademark law does not extend that far. You can only prevent others from appropriating or diluting your mark to promote their own products. For what should be fairly obvious First Amendment reasons, having Apple products in the background of a movie does not cross that line.

To even form the basis of a lawsuit, the use would need to clearly and falsely suggest that Apple products are favored by criminals and/or facilitate criminal activity. And in reality, smartphones and iPhones in particular so ubiquitous that it would be very hard to argue that their mere appearance in a movie suggests anything at all.

However: Movie studios are traditionally very litigation-shy, because time is literally money once you start the development process. Any kind of delay costs someone money and can throw off the production schedule. Thus, you have a stage in the process called “clearance” which is basically eliminating as much risk of lawsuit over IP and other issues as you can.

The usual approach is to just pay whatever licensing fees people demand rather than delay your project, provided the fee is reasonable. The IP owners have figured out this racket and usually ask far less than what it would cost the studio to fight over it, even when the need for actual permission is legally dubious.

And trust me, upset companies have sued movie studios in the past over uses that were clearly parody, de minimis, or otherwise not legally actionable. One of the Muppet movies drew a lawsuit from Hormel because they didn’t like a scene in which Miss Piggy becomes the tribe of an evil band of wild pigs known as the Spa’am. The court of course threw the suit out. But defending these suits costs a lot of money the studios would rather not pay.

So, if Apple says, “You can’t use our products in these ways,” suggesting that it might take legal action over it, the studios figure it’s far simpler and cheaper to just comply. It costs them very little to go along with Apple’s requests; a lawsuit over this could cost millions. And over what smartphones are shown in a movie? That makes little sense from a business standpoint.