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How Many Producers Does It Take To Produce ‘Lee Daniels' The Butler’?

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by Sergio
August 15, 2013 9:55 AM
6 Comments
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The Butler

Quite a few it turns out. Definitely more than a few. More something like 41 producers, give or take a few.

That’s quite a staggering number. In fact, The Butler just may hold the record for the most producers ever credited for a single film.

I’m hard pressed to think of any film that had just as many. I recall that Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine had 19 producers credited on the film, and back then people were stunned. And The king’s Speech has 16 credited producers, and that raised some eyebrows  But 41 for one film? That’s an achievement all by itself.

In my recent conversation with Lee Daniels (HERE) he said that he “walked the streets” to find the money to get this film made. He wasn’t kidding. It’s a battle and not for the squeamish. One has to admire his perseverance to get The Butler off the ground.

And yet considering how the film industry has changed so drastically just over the past few years, it may not be all that shocking. And when it comes to the world of independent filmmaking, the rules have changed so drastically that having 41 producers for one film should not be all that surprising and, perhaps, a sign of things to come.

So why did it take so many?

Well, recent articles in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter explain exactly how this came to be.

The film was the final project of producer Laura Ziskin along with her producing partner Pam Williams. They saw the Washington Post article about Eugene Allen - a black butler who worked at the White House for eight presidents and immediately thought it would be a great idea to turn into a film. 

They originally approached all the major studios, and despite Ziskin’s track record, including producing the Sam Raimi Spider Man movies which have made billions of dollars worldwide, all the studios rejected her project.

According to Williams: "It didn't fit into the business model driven by international sales. It was a period piece that was about American politics. It was an African-American film. It seemed to have everything against what the studios are looking for in terms of the franchises, the big tent poles,"

Not letting the studio rejections stop them, Ziskin and Williams decided to raise the money for the film independently. They budgeted the film originally at a low $25 million though it eventually rose to $30 million, which, considering the huge name cast and that it’s a period film spanning several decades, makes it practically a low budget film, with everyone working for well below their “quotes."

With Daniels now on board as director, along with his producing partner Hilary Shor, the producers first reached out to Sheila Johnson, who is the vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, and part owner of three pro sports teams: the NBA's Washington Wizards, the NHL's Washington Capitals and the WNBA's Washington Mystics. She is also CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which owns several luxury properties.

But of course Johnson, is also known as the co-founder of BET and the former wife of former BET co-founder Robert Johnson.

She truly loved the script and agreed to help finance the film with $2.7 million of her own money, later saying that "in Hollywood, no one wants to step up to the plate to support African-American films."

Johnson then started to campaign to bring in other African-American investors, though most never returned her phone calls. However, she was able to bring in a few, such as millionaire businessman Earl W. Stafford, Harry I. Martin Jr., president/CEO of Intelligent Decisions, and even her son, Brett Johnson.

And then the project got hit with a blow when Ziskin died after a long battle with breast cancer in June 2011. That spurred Daniels and Shor to approach former agent and indie film producer Cassian Elwes, who has some 60 films to his producing credit, and they, along with Williams, continued to look for money.

By early 2012, the Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik's British financing and production company Icon U.K. came on board with a $6 million guarantee against foreign presales. And shortly after that, Stuart Ford's IM Global took the project to Cannes, where he closed $6 million in sales to foreign distributors. (Which proves the lie that there’s no interest in black themed films overseas.)

Soon other investors were coming in, such as former NBA player Michael Finley and Buddy Patrick, who comes from a wealthy New Orleans family. Eventually the team was able to raise $16 million with the rest covered through tax rebates and foreign presales.

With each new investor, also came the on-screen credit of “Producer” or “Executive Producer.” According to lawyer Schuyler Moore, who Williams brought in to work out all the deals for the investors, “I’ve done billion-dollar financings, and this was worse than a billion-dollar financing."

And in case you’re wondering, Oprah was not one of the investors in the film. Curious, no?

After shooting began on the film, Sheila Johnson got a call from Harvey Weinstein who was interested in getting domestic distribution rights for The Butler for The Weinstein Company and the rest was history.

And that is how you get a film made nowadays (without Kickstarter).  Easy as pie...

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6 Comments

  • Qstorm | August 15, 2013 1:19 PMReply

    I just don't know if I'm ready for yet another film about gracious subservience so soon after The Help.

  • Larry Klug | August 15, 2013 11:31 AMReply

    This whole article is a ridiculous attempt by Sheila Johnson to promote herself. The numbers and the story are incorrect.

  • sergio | August 15, 2013 11:37 AM

    I stated in my article exactly where I got my information. Since you're Mr. Know-It-All you tell us exactly what happened since you're Mr. Insider

  • LeonRaymond | August 15, 2013 10:45 AMReply

    The most disturbing line in this article was "Johnson then started to campaign to bring in other African-American investors, though most never returned her phone calls." damn we can never count on our own people.

    But more to the point Sergio This is the new normal for getting indies done I am sure the list of producers will climb higher as you might have to credit folks who give small money to get the project moving forward. I won't be surprised to that amount of producers rise on Indies cause every body wants that film credit, that shit's like the Holy Grail -Great article Sergio!

  • NO BRAINER | August 15, 2013 1:31 PM

    That's just the way black people are, no matter how rich or poor.

  • Tishauna7 | August 15, 2013 1:18 PM

    that bothered me too, rich/wealthy black people are tightwads lol. whether they're old OR new money.

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