‘The Butler’ Box Office: Weinstein Says Oprah, Wide Release Offset Painful Title Fight

Broad appeal, no adult competition — and Oprah's first role in 15 years — have TWC confident

The legal battle over the title of “Lee Daniels‘ The Butler” created “a massive pain in the ass” — but the Weinstein Company’s distribution chief Erik Lomis is convinced the name change won’t hurt at the box office when it hits theaters Friday.

During the three-week dispute with Warners Bros. — which claimed that it had the right to “The Butler” title and ultimately prevailed — the Motion Picture Assn. of America forced the Weinsteins to take down its website and Facebook page for the film, and nearly all of the promotional materials had to be recalled and reworked with the new name.

On Tuesday, “The Butler” had just over 70,000 “likes” on Facebook, compared with the more than 200,000 that “The Help” had three days prior to its release. Clearly, the shutdown had an impact.

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“It didn’t help,” Lomis admitted to TheWrap Wednesday, “but at the end of the day, when people talk about your movie, it’s a good thing. We probably got a little more national attention earlier than we might have because of the fight, and we think we came out of it with the film viewed in a positive light.”

With its epic scope, weighty subject matter and glossy cast, “The Butler” feels very much like another awards contender for the Weinstein Company, which has delivered Best Picture Oscar winners “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech” in recent years.

But it won’t get the typical platform rollout in the fall that those films and most awards hopefuls receive.

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“We think this movie will have very broad appeal, so a wide release made sense to us,” Lomis said. The film originally was set to debut in October, but was moved up when TWC saw an opportunity.

“We looked at the release calendar and realized that even though it was very crowded, there wasn’t really another film that played to adults,” Lomis said. This weekend’s other wide openers are the young-skewing “Kick-Ass 2,” the Steve Jobs biopic "Jobs” and corporate espionage thriller “Paranoia.”

The critical response has been strong – it’s at 85 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes – and word of mouth from TWC’s aggressive screening campaign that has ranged from showings for Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush to African-American church groups.

It will be in roughly 2,900 theaters, about 400 more than originally planned.

“After the New York premiere, there was so much enthusiasm among theater operators that we had to go up,” he said.

The sprawling saga, with a screenplay by Danny Strong, looks at decades of America’s history through the character of a White House butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who served under eight Presidents. The glossy cast includes Oprah Winfrey as his wife and David Oyelowo as his son. A slew of presidents are portrayed, including Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Nixon (John Cusack), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Reagan (Alan Rickman). Lenny Kravitz, Jane Fonda and Terrence Howard also co-star.

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“They've really gotten out there for us," Lomis said, “and then there’s Oprah.”

The talk show host and entertainment mogul, a force of nature when it comes to pop culture, will be making her first big-screen appearance in 15 years in “The Butler.”

“If half the people in her book club turn out, ‘The Butler’ is going to be a huge hit,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock. He sees it opening somewhere between $18 million and $20 million for the three days.

“We’d be happy with something in the mid-teens,” Lomis said. “We’re in this for the long run and we feel really confident."