About a week ago, Oprah Winfrey was in the news for being told that a $38,000 crocodile-skin purse at a store in Zurich wasn't really for her. The uproar was related to racism: possibly, supposedly, maybe the saleswoman-for-the-filthy-rich felt that a black woman wouldn't be able to afford a $38,000 crocodile-skin purse, even though those stores for the disgustingly megarich – I mean, $38,000 for a goddamned purse? Crocodile skin? – surely cater to the wives and mistresses and aunts of megarich African entrepreneurs and dictators alike.
Fast forward a week or so and … Oprah Winfrey is back in the news as a result of another “incident” related to ethnic issues: the weekend debut of Lee Daniels' The Weinstein Company-distributed The Butler, about a black butler in the appropriately named White House. The Butler is also the movie that almost had to be renamed because of a pathetically bizarre dispute between TWC and Warner Bros. over its title. But more on that below.
Anyhow, The Butler, much like Disney's The Help two years ago, may be about to become a late summer sleeper hit – if various reports are to be believed, at least in part thanks to Oprah Winfrey (and perhaps that little $38,000 crocodile-skin purse uproar). Featuring Forest Whitaker in the title role, Oprah Winfrey as his wife, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, and about a dozen other stars as various Washington denizens throughout the decades, Lee Daniels' movie is expected to gross anywhere between $24-$25 million by Sunday evening, after collecting an estimated $8.32 million from 2,933 locations on Friday, according to figures found at Box Office Mojo. If the $30 million-budgeted The Butler does reach $25 million, that'll be about 25 percent above what some box office prognosticators had been expecting. (Sunday Update: The Butler opened with an estimated $25.01 million this weekend, August 16-18, 2013.)
Sunday Update: As for The Butler's competitors, Kick-Ass 2 was a major box office disappointment, raking in only $13.58 million – quite some ways behind the first Kick-Ass' $19.8 million and even below already modest early estimates ($14-$15 million). Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz star.
Meanwhile, both Jobs and Paranoia have totally bombed. Starring Ashton Kutcher, the Steve Jobs biopic (or hagiography, according to some critics) Jobs opened with $6.7 million from 2,381 sites, while Paranoia, the latest Harrison Ford box office disaster (also featuring The Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth), debuted with $3.5 million from 2,459 locations according to studio estimates found at Box Office Mojo.
'The Butler' vs. 'The Help,' 'Precious'
For comparison's sake: The Help debuted with $26.04 million at 2,534 theaters in mid-August 2011. Directed by Tate Taylor, and featuring Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Viola Davis, Mike Vogel, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Chris Lowell, Ahna O'Reilly, Allison Janney, Brian Kerwin, and Cicely Tyson, The Help went on gross $169.7 million in North America. International figures were much more modest: $41.9 million, probably helped by the film's four Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture); after all, the American Civil Rights Movement of the '60s remains an issue most people outside the United States know or care little about – if at all.
Considering that The Butler is a Weinstein Company release, expect lots of awards-season buzz and several key Oscar nominations. If all goes well, that should translate into solid long-term box office prospects for Lee Daniels' film in the U.S. – but considerably less so overseas, where American presidents and their butlers aren't of interest unless there's an alien and/or monster invasion of some sort of other. Preferably in 3D.
Also worth noting, Lee Daniels' Precious, featuring Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, and Paula Patton, opened (in wide release) with $10.88 million from 629 North American venues in late November 2009. (Precious stayed in limited release for two weeks.) The $10 million-budgeted Precious ultimately cumed with a good $47.66 million in North America, in addition to a poor $16.08 million internationally according to figures found at Box Office Mojo.
'The Butler' is a Butler by any other name
Apparently, amnesia (or dementia) set in at the time of the Warner Bros. vs. The Weinstein Company dispute over The Butler's title, as no one was able to remember Lee Daniels' 2009 drama Push, which became Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire after Push became a Chris Evans / Dakota Fanning adventure sci-fier. And let's not forget Crash – but which Crash? David Cronenberg's psychological drama about kinky sex and body parts, or the Paul Haggis-directed fantasy that caused one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history when it beat Brokeback Mountain? Anyhow, The Butler is now officially titled Lee Daniels' The Butler – sort of like Federico Fellini's Satyricon, or Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, and so on.
Well, studio attorneys make good money; studios likely feel the need to keep them busy doing no matter what to justify their fat paychecks. And hey, everyone was talking about The Butler long before the movie's release date. That's what's called Free Publicity – well, minus the attorneys' fees.
'The Butler' movie cast
Besides Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, and James Marsden, The Butler features Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, and Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King Jr. Other cast members include Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, Danny Strong, Colin Walker, Jim Gleason, Terrence Howard, Lenny Kravitz, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Alex Manette.
Official weekend estimates come out on Sunday morning. Weekend box office actuals will be released on Monday.
Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard in The Butler photo: The Weinstein Company.