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Black Church Groups Play Significant Role In 'The Butler's' Big Opening Weekend Box Office

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 19, 2013 at 10:19AM

Some were apparently stunned by the commanding box office lead Lee Daniels' The Butler enjoyed over the weekend, debuting to a stellar $25 million.
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Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER
Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER

Some were apparently stunned by the commanding box office lead Lee Daniels' The Butler enjoyed over the weekend, debuting to a stellar $25 million. 

Sergio already addressed the film's unexpected beat in his box office report yesterday (HERE), so consider this an addendum to that post.

Specifically, catching up on my weekend news this morning, I came across reports on websites like THR and Deadline, discussing the film's opening weekend success, and, from there, picked up on a couple of things I thought were worth mentioning.

First, 39 percent of The Butler ticket buyers this weekend were African American, in what is considered an especially strong turnout. Despite some early criticism of the film by African Americans, seemingly turned off by yet another film that looked to place blacks in subservient roles (a la The Help), The Weinstein Company (the film's distributor) ignored those critics and marketed the film heavily, first and foremost to African Americans - notable via outreach in faith-based communities.

I recall a somewhat similar strategy applied to The Help when it was released a couple of years ago, which led to a strong turnout of African Americans (especially the older generation) who saw themselves and their peers in the film's star portrayals, and who were drawn to what was essentially a wholesome, safe, family drama.

And we all know just how well The Help ended up doing, raking in over $150 million in the USA alone.

As I suggested in a previous post, emphasizing the audience diversity that exists within the so-called "black community," there are pockets of woefully under-served black audiences who will support, in strength, material that's seemingly been crafted especially for them, and appeals to their sensibilities. 

So while some of us may turn our nosed up to a film like The Help, or The Butler, there are those of us who embrace films like those - meaning, we shouldn't be shocked when The Help grosses $150+ million, and we find out, as we reported on this site when the film was in theaters, that a large portion of the film's paying audience, who helped the film earn its unexpected box office, were older black women church-goers, especially those in the southern states.

As Sergio related in his post, he was convinced The Butler would open strong, after he had a conversation with a 70-year-old black woman friend who was determined to see the film over the weekend, in support of it. She probably was representative of countless others like her.

It's all about demographics - and within our community, there are many. We aren't a monolith, as I always say.

But word on the street from The Weinstein Company, box office analysts and exit-poll takers, is that black church groups played a key role in delivering audiences this weekend; apparently, they accounted for a significant number of advance ticket sales. In essence, they were buying tickets in advance, in bulk.

And also, as THR notes, the film out-performed especially well in predominately black movie theaters in major market areas like Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, Atlanta and Chicago.

The Weinstein Company reportedly created what is being referred to as a "spiritual guide," with inspirational quotes from cast and crew, expressing themes from the film, reflective passages from scripture, as well as a faith-oriented trailer (I haven't seen that trailer; then again, it wasn't made for me), targeting those black church groups.

And you really can't talk about a black church outreach campaign without including heavyweights like Bishop T.D. Jakes, whom The Weinstein Company consulted to assist. After all, his Potter's House of Dallas, is a rather large church with an immense congregation.

And of course, the NAACP also got involved, helping to spread the word about the film to its constituents, stressing what they feel is an "important" film.

In all, it was an obvious win; or it should've been - meaning, it really shouldn't have been a surprise that the film performed very well in its debut. 

It feels like deja-vu. I recall us having a similar conversation after The Help opened in theaters 2 years ago. And while they aren't exactly the same film, there are several similar themes that run through both. And if you recall, The Help opened to almost identical numbers, taking in just over $26 million on its opening weekend, compared to $25 million for The Butler. With what seemed like a strong, but not blow-out opening figures, I never would've guessed that the film would go on to earn over $160 million in total. But word of mouth was strong, many saw the film more than once, and it gradually picked up new audiences along the way, and, in a work-man like effort, generated blockbuster box office numbers, going on to become the 13th highest grossing movie that year, beating out *bigger* films like X-Men: First Class, Super 8, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and many other higher-profile films.

So don't be surprised if The Butler has a similar showing by the end of its theatrical run, with a large portion of its audience being of African descent.

And don't be surprised if more movies like this are greenlit. And why wouldn't they be, with these kinds of box office returns?

Somewhere right now, a black filmmaker is thinking up a story that he/she thinks will appeal to the above-discussed target demo...

This article is related to: Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker


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