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'The Butler' Close to 'The Help''s Opening Numbers; Holdovers 'We're the Millers' and 'Elysium' Beat Other Newcomers

Photo of Tom Brueggemann By Tom Brueggemann | Thompson on Hollywood August 18, 2013 at 1:36PM

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" delivered as a major number one success for The Weinstein Co., exceeding most predictions. But the overall weekend marked another summer disappointment. Three of this week's four openers fell from their Friday starts, showing bad word of mouth and lack of interest. "Kick-Ass 2" was supposed to compete for number one with "The Butler," but underperformed relative to expectations. "Jobs" and especially "Paranoia" (which didn't even make the top 10) were real bellyflops. The second weekend for both "We're the Millers" and "Elysium" outgrossed all newbies except for "The Butler."
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Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Forest Whitaker in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" delivered as a major number one success for The Weinstein Co., exceeding expectations. But the overall weekend was another summer disappointment. Three of this week's four openers fell from their Friday starts, showing bad word of mouth and lack of interest. "Kick-Ass 2" was supposed to compete for number one with "The Butler," but underperformed relative to expectations. "Jobs" and especially "Paranoia" (which didn't even make the top 10) were real bellyflops. The second weekend for both "We're the Millers" and "Elysium" outgrossed all newbies except for "The Butler."

The top 10 totaled $113 million, down $10 million from last year, when "The Expendables 2" opened to $28 million. "The Butler"'s $25 million gross is the lowest for a weekend for a #1 since April, but this is in the normal range for a top grosser for mid-August and later.

1. Lee Daniels' The Butler (Weinstein) NEW - Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: B; Metacritic: 66

$25,010,000 in 2,933 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $8,527; Cumulative: $25,010,000

Without question this marks a major triumph so far for the Weinsteins, Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and the 41 or so producers associated with this contemporary history film, which ended up an easy #1 film for the weekend. Grossing in the same range as two similarly-themed films, "The Help" and "42," which both grossed just over $27 million on their opening weekends ("The Help" had a two-day head start), "The Butler," unusually for the Weinsteins, is a wide release summer awards contender outside of the late-year congestion.

The question is how it holds on. Many locations enjoyed multiple sold-out shows and even initial repeat viewings, with significant applause and emotional response. Unlike some Weinstein hits, this lacks initial awards-parallel marketing to boost and sustain interest as the weeks pass, which "The Help" didn't need as it climbed to $169 million, playing deeply into autumn 2011. One key is how much of a crossover audience "The Butler" has. Both "42" and "The Help" played with substantial older audience support, and "The Help" had strong overall female interest in its favor.

This gross justifies continued strong marketing support (substantial advertising supplemented considerable publicity over the past weeks, including the silly title kerfuffle that kept it in the news). With a $30 million initial production cost, this looks like more than a success d'estime, assuming it reaches the usual three-time opening multiple that the average #1 film has.

What comes next: Next weekend's results need to solidify forward momentum. So far this is off to a great start.

2. We're the Millers (Warner Bros.) Week 2 - Last Weekend: #2

$17,780,000 (-33%) in 3,325 theaters (+65); PSA: $5,347; Cumulative: $69,513,000

Clearly the go-to comedy of the moment, "We're the Millers" joins "The Heat" as the second big laffer of the season driven by a woman star. The raunchfest held very well its second weekend, and looks headed to an easy $100 million + domestic take.

What comes next: Like all studios, Warner Bros. has had both hits and misses this summer, but on balance they've had a strong season, and this puts an exclamation point on that even before it gets going in most foreign territories.

3. Elysium (Sony) Week 2 - Last weekend: #1

$13,600,000 (-54%) in 3,284 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $4,141; Cumulative: $55,914,000

A bigger than 50% drop after a less than hoped for start is not encouraging for Sony, as this independently financed $115 million production is going to need a strong foreign return to break even for all involved. Initial results in 20 new territories this weekend showed all of them ahead of the returns of both director Neill Blomkamp's earlier "District 9" as well as this summer's "Pacific Rim," suggesting that this could still be a success.

What comes next:

This article is related to: Box Office, Box Office, Box Office, Lee Daniels' The Butler , Marketing, Oprah Winfrey, The Weinstein Co., Weinsteins, Harvey Weinstein


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.