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

by Tambay A. Obenson
August 19, 2013 10:19 AM
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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...

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  • Blackman | August 20, 2013 12:29 AMReply

    What "so-called Black community" you talking about? Of course you won't fit, so continue hanging with that small cab driving, socially misfit - NEGATIVE African Immigrant community of yours.

    We cool with it. we the REAL Africans - because we overcame our TRIBALISM ions ago. The very shit Colonialism have taught your ignant parents and other MIS-INFORMED affakans,

  • CareyCarey | August 19, 2013 7:06 PMReply

    I also had a few problems with this post, not to mention the questionable data collection system.

    The narrative of this post seemed to imply that the black church is comprised of over-the-hill senior citizens -- which is a misguided suggestion. Granted, there are traditional doctrines still standing guard at many Black Churches, however, there's a new wave of a new generation of church goers, which one can see reflected in the dressing styles and musical tastes of the younger church going population. The last winner of BET's Sunday Best and the runner-up were under the age of 20. Many church goers identify with Mary Mary's and Kirk Franklin's music and dressing style, which are far removed from traditional "old school". And, when I mentioned to three "health care facility" employees that I was on my way to the movies, they said, "oh, we were just talking about that. If we were not working today we'd go see The Butler too." Heck, I didn't tell them I was planning on seeing that movie, nor were they "church folks". They were 3 CNA's in their early twenties.

    So maybe the post should refer to the voice of those (regardless of their religious affiliations) who simply desired to see a movie that was absent of drugs, gratuitous sex, babies momma's drama, guns and garden variety mess. Yeah, that's a novel idea that's in the wheel-house of millions of Black Americans.

    The moral to this predicament? Tambay, an admitted atheist, and Sergio, an admitted church player hater, should stop writing about subjects/issues in which they have little connection.

  • CareyCarey | August 21, 2013 11:09 AM

    Thanks August, you're wise and very observant. So let me preface my comment with a few more words of wisdom. In reference to Lee Daniels and the Weinsteins' proclamations, it's not wise to listen to or pay much attention to the bugles of piped pipers.

    To that point, did you read Lee Daniels' begging, simping ass letter to the Warner Bros. over the title change? Well, in short, he practically offered to shine their shoes. When that didn't work, his pimping and pandering partner, Mr. Weinsteins solicited the help of a few "black leaders", some of which have connections to the Black Church. Now, don't take this wrong but many in the Jewish community have been using black folks for a very long time. Yes, as landlords (slumlords) and small shop owners in the black community, they were known to give poor service and poor products at inflated prices. But black folks needed them so they smiled and graciously accepted their offerings.

    Now here we have a similar situation, the purveyor dangles an alleged reward in front of the black community (a must see movie that will help them in their struggles).

    To assist them in their pimping and pandering ways, they solicit the aid of other noted pimps and panderers within the black community, preachers and other groups of bobbin' head negros.

    Wait, come to think of it, this whole scenario reminds me of Henny Penny and her companions. Just like Henny Penny who said the sky was falling down, and thus gathered a few friends to spread the news, the Weinsteins needed a few willing participants to spread their business.

    Well, the Weinsteins lost their court battle but his fellow hustlers (dem preachers and dem) didn't lose their heads to Foxy Loxy, so it's all good in the neighborhood. The sky is not falling down but money-is-now-rolling-down. However, since everyone knows it's not wise to speak on how the pastor's pockets got puffy, the Weinsteins, with the help of their Boo-Boo (Lee Daniels) decided to give them a public good ol' boys pat on the back by throwing them a bone... " 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"

    Really? WHAT?! Who falls for that propaganda? And, what system did the exit-poll takers use to identify "church goers"? Please... pimpin' ain't easy but it sure pays good. And, the Weinteins ain't nobodies fool, they know they might need the "leaders" one-mo-gin. And, as P. T. Barnum is often credited for saying "There's a sucker born every minute".

    But in reference to the motives of the author, you're probably right, I may have read a little too much into their intentions. However, in my defense, at this blog, by "some" writers, the words "church folks" are frequently used in a negative connotation. Consequently, when I read the author's deja-vu moment (taking him back to The Help), I was immediately reminded of his dislike of that film. So I'm thinkin', what's he really trying to say and what's the real purpose behind this post? Was he implying that those uneducated, easily mislead and blind "church folks" have again championed the white man's wares, helping them spread the bad news?

    But again August, you're probably right, I may have read too much into this one, so I'll fall back. But Sergio is a church player hater who said half of all black preachers are gay.

  • August Wasoba | August 20, 2013 12:47 AM

    @CareyCarey you have issues with the way this article or what it talks, but nothing in this article comes off a mean-spirited or intentionally insulting towards religious people. It seems to me that you might just have an issue with Atheists and possibly other members of the freethought movement.

    maybe this article was the straw that broke the camel's back or maybe there is some stuff going in the background between y'all, but, either way, please be cool. Because Lee Daniels and the Weinsteins have gone on record and attributed part of this movies' success to the Black church. so idk maybe fall back on your misplaced indignation. there have been articles in the past on this website that might deserve this kind of response, but this ain't one of them.

  • What? | August 19, 2013 12:26 PMReply

    You really sound like you are talking out the side of your neck. You don't have any concrete proof that Black churches pushed this movie to #1. While 39% of the audiences were Black, that leaves 61% that weren't. When I saw the film, there was a significant number of white folk in there.

  • I'm done | August 19, 2013 6:01 PM

    It is called - lemme try to explain why some black people went to see black actors in characters that work in a subservient JOBs - not ROLE because it doesn't make sense to us.

  • Stagolee | August 19, 2013 10:59 AMReply

    You're right. Just co-wrote, "A Joyful Noise:The Mahalia Jackson Story".

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