The Butler

According to all the box office predictors, Kick-Ass 2 was going to be the No 1 film this weekend. Meanwhile, I was telling anyone who would listen to me (both of them) that Lee Daniels’ The Butler was going to beat its ass. And guess who was right?

The predictions were that the film would most likely come in second in the mid-teens around $16-17 million. My guess was more like $20-22 million. And it turns out that I was off a couple of million since the film came in with $25 million, which is equal to the film’s original production budget.

So why was I so sure? A few things:

Great PRThe Weinstein Company ran maybe one of the best, if not the best, advance PR hype for any film of theirs in years. You couldn’t go anywhere or see or read anything in the media (including S & A) that didn't include interviews with Oprah, Forest Whitaker and Daniels, or some segment or story about the film's narrative on TV. It was omnipresent and constant. I even saw three different segments about the film on the BBC News channel, and not on some weekend arts show, but the news channel. And I’ve never seen the BBC News report about any film on its newscast - American, British or foreign. The film also was helped greatly by a heavy TV ad campaign, especially in the morning and afternoon hours when women are watching the most.

Momentum – Thanks to the PR campaign, the film started to develop that all important momentum, that “I’ve got to see it” buzz, which Kick-Ass 2 didn’t have at all. Who was talking about KA2 before it came out? Did anyone even know it was coming out this weekend or did they care?

Opening Date – TWC was smart to move The Butler’s original release date from October to mid-August. The big summer movies have come and gone, and late August to mid Sept is usually a dead zone for new films. Studios tend to release films that they have little confidence in and don’t expect to do well at the box office. That gives The Butler practically no competition from other films, especially dramas, for a full month, until late September, when the fall film season starts in earnest.

Older Audience – One constant thing that box office pundits consistently do, is underestimate the older film-going audience. Their attitude is that, only 14-25 year olds go see films, and anyone over 40 just stays home, or doesn’t exist. While it’s true that older film-goers don’t go to films as often as younger people, they definitely do go; and when they do, they come out in force. And The Butler, because of it historical subject matter and cast of familiar names, is exactly the kind of film that will make them do that.

I tend to discount somewhat the Oprah “factor” which some are saying is one of the main reasons for the film’s success this weekend. Oprah has never been, what one would say, a box office powerhouse (Beloved anyone?). Though I admit that her presence in the film definitely gave it a “curiosity factor” that another actress in the role, say like Angela Bassett, would not have given it.

But the biggest hint to me on how the film would do happened last week, when I had a brief conversation with an older black woman in her early 70s, who told me that she couldn’t wait to see The Butler that weekend, adding that: “It’s going to be No.1 this weekend. Watch!

Whoa. I’ve never had a 73 year old person tell me her box office predictions before, but it also indicated that she was very invested in the film and was going to do what she could to make the film a success. I suspect a lot of people felt the same way and went out to see the film.

I pegged the film to do, perhaps, $75 million total, if it has strong legs for the next few weeks, which I think it does. But that was until last night, when a friend of mine told me he saw the film Friday night, and the entire audience in the packed theater was crying at the end, both black and white. He said that a white woman sitting next to him in the theater actually grabbed his arm bawling her eyes out. As a result I’m moving up my estimate to around $100 million.

Meanwhile Kick-Ass 2 under-performed, coming in at a surprising 4th place, and the other big release this weekend, Jobs with Ashton Kutcher, pretty much fell flat. But then again it’s a movie with Ashton Kutcher in the lead role. Need I say more?

1) Lee Daniels' The Butler Wein. $25,010,000 
2) We're the Millers WB $17,780,000 Total:$69,513,000 
3) Elysium TriS $13,600,000 Total:$55,914,000 
4) Kick-Ass 2 Uni. $13,568,000 
5) Planes BV $13,141,000 Total:$45,090,000 
6) Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters Fox $8,375,000 Total:$38,904,000
7) Jobs ORF $6,700,000
8) 2 Guns Uni. $5,572,000 Total:$59,221,000 
9) The Smurfs 2 Sony $4,600,000  Total:$56,912,000 
10) The Wolverine Fox $4,425,000 Total:$120,458,000  
11) The Conjuring WB $3,910,000 Total:$127,863,000 
12) Despicable Me 2 Uni. $3,781,000 Total:$345,988,000