The $25 million No.1 debut for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was the result of a shrewd gamble The Weinstein Co. made back in May — by moving it from its traditional October awards slot to August, the film captured older, female and African-American audiences who’ve been under-served all summer.
“We knew it had broad appeal and that we’d be something different in the marketplace,” Weinstein’s distribution chief Erik Lomis said, explaining why the company eschewed the fall launch it had favored for other eventual Best Picture winners “The King’s Speech” in 2010 and 2011’s “The Artist.”
“The Butler” stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey and looks at America’s civil rights struggle through the eyes of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents from 1952 to 1986.
Its primary competition was “Kick-Ass 2,” Universal’s raunchy, R-rated and very youthful-skewing sequel. The young male target demo for that film couldn’t have been further from that of “The Butler,” which skewed much older – 76 percent were over the age of 35 – and 60 percent female. African Americans made up 39 percent of the first weekend audiences. All of those are groups of moviegoers very much under-served in the summer.
“Almost like we planned it, right?” said Lomis.
He thought the big opening for “The Butler” would help broaden its base and get a little less gray.
“It’s a quality movie and that word is going to get out with younger people,” he said.
Oprah’s high profile and relentless promo work made a major difference, but “The Butler’ plainly capitalized on audiences’ fatigue with a summer full of action fare, sequels and superheroes.
The week’s No. 2 film, the Jennifer Aniston-Jason Sudeikis comedy “We’re the Millers” also played older and female, which helped it hold so strongly in its second week.
Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker said that the believes end of summer is a great time for films that play to older audiences.
“People get tired of seeing all these blockbusters, but they’re still in the moviegoing habit,” he said. “Something that’s smart can really stand out.”
SPC is going nationwide this week with Woody Allen‘s drama “Blue Jasmine,” another film that has built its success on older crowds.
There was precedent for the Weinstein’s decision to go with a late summer launch for “The Butler,” from two very disparate movies.
Disney opened DreamWorks’ “The Help,” which dealt with race through the prism of black women working for white families, in August of 2011. It rode of a wave of Oscar buzz and stayed in theaters through the awards season, eventually rolling up $170 million domestically and $212 million worldwide.
The other was the Weinstein Company’s last No 1 movie, 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds.” That film also had Oscar aspirations and a very-high profile front-person in director Quentin Tarantino. The World War II saga debuted in August and went on to make $120 million in the U.S. and $321 million worldwide.
Those were both big money makers for TWC, and with its $25 million budget, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” should be, too. A domestic total somewhere between the total of those two films seems likely for “The Butler.”
“We’ll know a lot more after this coming weekend,” Lomis said.