How ‘The Help’ Grew From Women’s Flick to Box-Office Powerhouse

The big surprise is how the audience for a dramedy about black Southern maids and white socialites at the dawning of the Civil Rights movement keeps widening

Last Updated: August 26, 2011 @ 11:21 AM

The phenomenon known as “The Help” could bring another aftershock to the box office this weekend: The smart money is that the Disney/Dreamworks dramedy wins the weekend for the second time in a row.

The picture’s initial success isn't that baffling — each August tends to bring a sort of blockbuster backlash — that moment when our brains are snapping back on and we folks out here in the dark are ready for some character-driven stuff.

What’s surprising is how the audience for a dramedy about black Southern maids and white socialites at the dawning of the Civil Rights movement is widening.

Also read: 'The Help': The Box-Office Hit That Nearly Didn't Get Made

Its second weekend out, "The Help" topped the box office on just a 20 percent decline. More significantly, the audience expanded to include to a younger, more male crowd with more African-Americans. 

That strong showing immediately drew comparisons to "The Blind Side," a movie that shares certain themes with "The Help,"  and also vaulted from No. 2 in its debut to No. 1 in its second release on word of mouth. "The Blind Side" went on to gross almost $300 million at the global box office and bring an Oscar to Sandra Bullock. 

The widening audience for "The Help" comes as no surprise to co-producer Chris Columbus.

“The strongest thing about this movie, and we’ve known this since we began screening it, is word of mouth,” Columbus (pictured) said.

Also read: The Biggest Monster at the Weekend's Box Office Is Hurricane Irene

Disney’s first-night exit polling indicated that 74 percent of "The Help's" audience was female and 60 percent was age 35 years and older. That's the story's core audience ever since first-time novelist Kathryn Stockett’s semi-autobiographical novel swept up the bestseller charts. But by the second night, the percentage of women in the audience had dropped to 69 percent.

What that said was that a fair amount of what were most likely husbands and significant others were persuaded to tag along.

It’s a trend doesn’t look to weaken anytime soon.

Fandango polling early this week showed “The Help” leading in advance ticket sales with 27 percent, ranking as the No. 2 Favorite Movie of the Summer, just behind “Harry Potter." Actress Bryce Dallas Howard came in second in the Summer’s Best Bad Guy category to Ralph Fiennes’ Lord Voldemort.

Some 77 percent interested in seeing “The Help” have read the book, and 95 percent “reported that the film's surprising comic relief makes them more interested in seeing the film,” Fandango said.

While nearly 70 percent said they are looking forward to “finally seeing a summer movie with substance,"  41 percent of females said it’s unlikely they’ll be able to drag “the man in their life” to see this movie with them.

Columbus has his own take on that.

“Honestly, what we saw in the original previews was that some of the men were loving the film more than the women,” he told TheWrap. “So we realized if we could just get people into the theater it would spread — sort of an old-fashioned view of filmmaking that we haven't seen in a while … a movie surviving and thriving on word of mouth."

Asked about the carps that the film gives short shrift both to the black men of the era who were better role models than the largely unseen males of the film and to the actual substantive Civil Rghts gains driven by the era's black activism, he pointed to the approval granted the film by the NAACP and Medgar Evers’ widow Myrlie Evers, whose husband’s assassination provides a turning-point moment.

“Tate didn’t want to tell a Civil Rights story,” said co-producer Brunson Green, a longtime collaborator of Tate Taylor, who adapted his friend's novel and directed it. Green started in the business working for “The Help” casting director Kerry Barden  (“Winter’s Bone”).

“Tate just wanted to tell an interesting story about these women, and a part of their lives when there was a huge change. Obviously, the Civil Rights movement went over a span of years and involved hundreds of thousands of people.

"But that’s not what the novel’s about and not what the story’s about — so he had to concentrate on a very small aspect of peoples’ lives and in a very finite time.”

Columbus wonders aloud if the media has been digging for negatives even as the film makes its own way: “What started with fans of the book and then went to women is now mothers taking their children. My son is going back to college in a week and has a friend leaving early. The night before going back to college, this 19-year-old male went with his mother to see ‘The Help.’

"You’re talking about something people want to share with either their children or their significant others — the audience is getting more diverse every weekend.”

Says Green: “You’re getting back to the original reason why people like to go to the movies — to experience a ride. And I think the summer movies before ours were thrill rides, and ‘The Help’ is more of an emotional ride.”

“For me,” Columbus said, “It goes way back to something they told me in film school — always try to do a movie that’s personal. For a lot of people involved, this is a very, very personal movie."

Columbus recalled his — and the industry’s — surprise back in 1990 when “Home Alone” debuted at No. 1 and clung to the spot for some three months. “I’m not saying this movie is gonna get there, because the marketplace is far more crowded these days — but there was this excitement,” he said.

Colombus says it’s personal for him as well, as a working director: “The way people are talking about it — that kind of excitement makes you fall in love with making movies again.”

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