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Oprah Winfrey’s ‘The Butler’ Wins Big at Box Office – And Title Fight Helped

Civil rights saga debuts with $25M, topping holdover "We're the Millers" as three other wide openers disappoint

By any name, Oscar hopeful "Lee Daniels’ The Butler” was the standout champ at the North American box office this weekend, surpassing projections with a three-day debut estimated at $25 million.

The historical civil rights saga starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey handily beat out the No. 2 movie, the Jennifer Aniston-Jason Sudeikis comedy “We’re the Millers,” which held very well and took in $17.7 million in its second week, and three other wide openers.

The pseudo superhero sequel “Kick-Ass 2, which had been expected to challenge for the top spot, disappointed with $13.6 million. The Steve Jobs bio “Jobs” couldn’t crack $7 million and the corporate thriller “Paranoia” tanked, managing less than $4 million and failing to make the top ten.

Also read: ''The Butler' Reviews: Is the Civil Rights Drama a Masterpiece or Maudlin?

The Weinstein Company last month lost a high-profile and protracted legal battle with Warner Bros. over the right to use the title “The Butler” for its film, which tells the true story of Eugene Allen (Whitaker), a butler who served in the White House through eight presidential administrations. Oprah plays Allen's wife.

High-powered attorney David Boies argued for TWC, but Warner Bros., which had reserved the right to the name based on a 1916 short, prevailed and Weinstein was forced to make the title change and added director Daniels’ name. During the spat, the Weinstein Company was forced to take down its web site, Facebook page and had to recall and rework much of it promotional materials. But none of that seemed to hurt the film and the box office, and it may have actually helped it.

Also  read: Did 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Just Kick Off the Oscar Race?

“In our exit polls, nearly 40 percent of the audiences said that they heard of the movie because of the publicity over the name battle,” Weinstein’s distribution chief Erik Lomis told TheWrap. “That’s a lot, so I don’t think there’s any doubt it boosted awareness.”

“The Butler” also rode a slew of strong reviews and a publicity barrage generated by Winfrey’s first big-screen appearance in more than a decade to a very strong start to what is expected to be a long run in the theaters – possibly through next year’s Oscars.


"We're very proud of this film, and can't wait to see how it plays in the next few weeks," said Lomis, who's planning to increase the 2,933 theater-count by a few hundred for next weekend.

Mature moviegoers and African-Americans were the target demographics, and it connected in a major way. Black moviegoers made up 39 percent of the audience, which also skewed older — a whopping 76 percent was over 35 — and 60 percent female. They loved it, giving it an "A" CinemaScore.

The sprawling saga, with a screenplay by Danny Strong (HBO’s “Game Change”), has a glossy supporting cast that portrays a slew of president, including Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Nixon (John Cusack), Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), and Reagan (Alan Rickman). Lenny Kravitz and Terrence Howard also co-star, and Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan. David Oyelowo has drawn critical praise for his work as the central character’s son.

Despite tracking that pointed to a $20 million weekend and heavy online buzz, Universal’s raunchy comic book tale "Kick-Ass 2" failed to connect and came in under the $19.5 million debut of the 2010 original.

Also read: Oprah Winfrey Apologizes for Racist Handbag Furor

The audience – 63 male and 58 percent under 25 year of age – gave the R-rated action comedy starring Chloe Moretz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Jim Carrey a “B+” CinemaScore.

Based on the estimates, it was just beaten out for third place by last week's No. 1 movie, Sony's Matt Damon futuristic action film "Elysium," which also brought in $13.6 million. And it wound up just ahead of Disney's animated "Cars" spin-off "Planes," which fell off just 41 percent from its opening week and brought in $13.2 million.

“Jobs," in which Ashton Kutcher portrays Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs, came in at the low end of expectations. Negative reviews – it scored just a 25 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes – took a toll.

Also read: Box-Office Record for Summer 2013? We're Counting on You, ‘Kick-Ass 2’

Audiences, which broke down 53 percent male and 59 percent over the age of 25, weren’t much more impressed than the critics, giving it a “B-” CinemaScore. The fact that Sony and writer Aaron Sorkin are working on another Steve Jobs film, based on Walter Isaacson’s bio, probably didn’t help either.

The Open Road release was produced for about $15 million and financed by Five Star Films, with Endgame Entertainment partnering on the marketing.

The opening for “Paranoia,” which stars Liam Hemsworth as a young employee forced into corporate espionage, is among the year’s worst for a wide release. Despite a solid supporting cast that included Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Amber Heard, the film failed to gain any traction.

Relativity Media distributed “Paranoia, which was financed and produced by IM Global, Reliance and Demarest Films for about $35 million.