“The Founder,” a film about McDonald’s Corp. that isn’t authorized by the company, uses McDonald’s zealously guarded iconography to provide a bold visual tour through Ray Kroc’s supposed hijacking of those same images.
LOS ANGELES — “Crosses. Flags. … Arches.”
Those words are spoken by Ray Kroc, or rather Michael Keaton, in “The Founder,” a film about McDonald’s Corp., as he envisions the stature the soon-to-be ubiquitous emblem would attain for the fast-food chain in a nation that in 1954 already had steeples and flagpoles aplenty.
“McDonald’s can be the new American church,” says Keaton’s Kroc, as he begs to join the brothers Dick and Mac McDonald in transforming their small California company into much more than a string of burger joints.
Twists that soon left Kroc in control of the McDonald’s name and its corporate identity make up the plot of a movie that both loves and loathes its hero, an archetypal postwar businessman.
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And the film’s portrayal of Kroc comes with a notable irony: Unauthorized by the company, “The Founder” uses McDonald’s zealously guarded iconography to provide a bold visual tour through Kroc’s supposed hijacking of those same, mostly trademarked, images.
“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 Founder,” set for release in the United States on Aug. 5 by The Weinstein Co.
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.
But Hancock and a filmmaking team that includes FilmNation Entertainment and the producers Don Handfield and Jeremy Renner 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 the 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 Valerie Barreiro, who teaches on the topic of 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.
Barreiro noted that “the risks are higher” for an unauthorized use of trademarks in the promotion of a work.
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.”
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 $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.
Jason French, Dick McDonald’s grandson, said the never-paid royalty would have delivered “in the billions” of dollars. His grandfather, he said, did not reconcile with Kroc, but was occasionally involved with the corporation after Kroc’s death.
The brothers’ resentment involved not just the money, French said, but Kroc’s habit of calling himself the McDonald’s “founder,” though what he actually founded was a corporation that eventually absorbed the original McDonald’s company.
Keaton, nominated for an Oscar in 2015 for “Birdman,” plays Kroc as a complicated beast, wrapping boundless optimism and heedless drive into a single, half-endearing package.
“I couldn’t remember ever reading a script where I was pulling so hard for the protagonist in the first half, then questioning my own feeling for him in the second,” Hancock said.
Hancock’s film rivals Kroc’s boldness in using the McDonald’s name and visual identity. In large part, that was engineered by production designer Michael Corenblith, who called the process of recovering the early McDonald’s imagery “as difficult as anything I’ve ever done.”
Based on old photographs, blueprints and other archival material, the work began, Corenblith said, with reconstruction of the McDonald brothers’ hamburger assembly line — a precise system, devised in their original San Bernardino restaurant, that has been likened in its effect on the industry to the automotive work of Henry Ford.
Eventually, Corenblith and his team built two full-size mock-ups of early McDonald’s restaurants, both with working kitchens.