Monday Morning Quarterback Part I
By BOP Staff
August 20, 2013

His theme song is Santana's Winning.

Kim Hollis: Lee Daniels' The Butler finished at the top of the box office this weekend, taking in $24.6 million. What do you think about this result? Also, what do you think about its awards chances?

Jason Barney: This will end up being a pretty big success for the Weinstein Company, and there are a lot of shocked people wondering how this somewhat smaller release ended up winning the weekend. It’s bigger than that, though, as this becomes another example of a smaller film outperforming the competition and making the budget back within the first few days of release. While I don’t know if I would call it a trend, we have seen it a lot this summer. Now You See Me upstaged After Earth. The Purge did extremely well against returning films and The Internship. The Conjuring outpaced three new openers and was an instant success. Now we have The Butler, with a lower screen count than the next five films in the top ten, and going up against seven recent openers. The box office is fresh with a lot of new options for people and The Butler did exceptionally well. It will have made its budget back by early in the week, and then it will easily start to pay off the marketing costs.

This is a nice win for Forrest Whitaker, who has been a bit hit or miss. I think he is very recognizable, but audiences see him in projects like Repo Men or The Last Stand, which have not been the best career choices. This opening, and the likely strong holds The Butler is going to experience, will put him back on the map.

Brett Ballard-Beach: As has been noted elsewhere, there has been room for prestige projects to break out in August over the last few years (Julie & Julia, Eat Pray Love, The Help) and this follows the pattern of reaching out to the multiplex audiences who have either gotten burned out on action and superheroes by now, or tend to look for smaller "indie" films in general. Things like the ridiculous tussle over the title (which I now see is leading ignorant net commenters to proclaim that Lee Daniels is the height of Hollywood egotism run amok) and the stunt casting of familiar faces you wouldn't expect to see playing presidents and first ladies, certainly helped it to break out slightly above early predictions. Plus, unless there's a scene where the butler has to pee on one of the presidents to counteract a venomous jellyfish bite, there probably isn't any offensive or objectionable material to keep larger audiences at bay. An opening like this for a film that will continue to play with older audiences in weeks to come is a great start. I think it has an easy shot at a Best Actor nod, a decent chance at a Best Picture nom, but probably not much beyond that (though wouldn't it be great to be able to refer to one of Buffy's "Nerds of Doom" as an Oscar nominee?).

Edwin Davies: I think it has come along at a perfect time to capitalize on the late summer malaise that tends to settle over the box office when people have had their fill of action movies. The season is winding down, kids are going back to school, and adults are starting to hanker for films that don't feature the world being destroyed. The Butler is exactly the kind of middlebrow, prestige pic that might get swamped in the height of awards season but can clean up amidst the dregs of blockbuster season, and the timing could not have been more perfect.

In addition to scheduling, which can help a film break out but is rarely the sole factor, it's got an inspirational story based on historical events - which, in turn, offers opportunities for a lot of bizarre stunt casting - which appeals to not just adult audiences, but also African-American and religious ones. All three are pretty poorly served by Hollywood in general and especially in the summer months, so The Butler has a lot going for it from a demographic point of view.

In terms of awards contention, the film has received mixed reviews, which is not a death knell as far as Oscar chances go but does mean that it might get shut out of the major categories, except maybe the acting ones. Then again, it depends on how the rest of the year plays out. If there is a weak field this year, I could see The Butler getting a lot of attention. If not, it'll be an afterthought, albeit a successful one.

David Mumpower: I would add that I have always believed that mid-August is a terrific point on the movie schedule to release an awards contender. Generally, audiences have been overwhelmed with three months of popcorn fare by this point. A substantive project represents a refreshing change of pace. Now, 2013 has featured a better class of blockbusters than is usually the case but the thought process is still valid. I also believe that The Butler offers a tantalizing combination for a movie of this type. It has a lot in common with The Help but there is also a nice touch of Forrest Gump as well.

Kim Hollis: This is a marvelous performance that has been helped by a number of contributing factors. First off, the controversy about the name got the movie mentioned in entertainment headlines for several weeks running in advance of the film's release. Next, we have the casting, which brought in a variety of top-notch performers whose presence suggests a certain amount of gravitas. There are five Academy Award winners in the cast (Forest Whitaker, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jane Fonda and Robin Williams) and two other actors who were nominated for Oscar (Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard). Even though she's not on daytime TV anymore, Oprah still has devoted fans and followers. Her presence is extremely important. Finally, you have an under-served crossover demographic that always seems to shock Hollywood when they come out to support fare like this. I really don't know why some small or mid-level studio doesn't just go ahead and focus on this niche, though I suppose Lionsgate is sort of doing that with Tyler Perry to some degree.

As far as awards go, I don't think it's too early at all to say this is an early contender for several awards. Its critical reviews are very similar to what The Help did during the same time frame a few years ago and the word-of-mouth is similar as well. Whitaker is sure to be in the mix for Best Actor, and I actually think Danny Strong has a real shot for screenplay although I recognize that's a tough category most years. Depending on how large the Best Picture pool is, I do think The Butler has a fantastic chance. Remember - it's the Weinsteins. They make awards happen for their movies. I guess it just depends which of their biopics they push come Oscar time - this one, the Mandela one, or the Grace Kelly story. My guess is that The Butler is the most marketable of the three.