"Lee Daniels' The Butler" will be the No. 1 movie at the box office this weekend after taking in about $9 million in ticket sales last night. That puts the historical drama on track for a $27-million weekend, significantly more than The Weinstein Company's initial lowball estimate of $15 million.
It also means "The Butler" will open to roughly the same weekend take as DreamWorks' 2011 civil rights drama "The Help," which also debuted in August and brought in $26 million on its way to a $169.7-million domestic gross.
Will "The Butler," which tracks the life of an African American man who worked for 34 years as a White House butler, have the same staying power as "The Help"? Oprah Winfrey, who stars in the film with Forest Whitaker, obviously gave the movie an initial boost at the box office, proselytizing on its behalf to her hugely loyal -- and large -- following. According to a Fandango poll, 72% of ticket-buyers said Winfrey increased the likelihood that they'd see the film.
These disciples will also be likely to spread the word, as opening night audiences surveyed by market research firm CinemaScore gave the movie an "A" grade. With no other high-profile movies geared toward adults opening in the late-August, early-September multiplex wasteland, "The Butler" should have grown-ups all to themselves until the leaves start to turn.
If the movie can replicate the commercial success of "The Help," it could become, like its predecessor, an awards-season player. "The Help" won four Oscar nominations, including picture and acting nods for Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer (who won the supporting actress award).
Reviews for "The Butler," like "The Help," have been mixed. "The Butler" has a 66 score at the movie-review aggregator site Metacritic. "The Help" earned a 62. But Oscar whisperer Harvey Weinstein, whose company is behind "The Butler," already has his "for your consideration" money quotes from prominent outlets in hand, particularly one from New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, which we'll repeat here as it plays in ads, bold-faced embellishment and all.
"Brilliantly truthful ... dabs of raucous comedy and wild exuberance! The genius of the film lies in the sly and self-assured way it connects public affairs to private experience."
That the movie's private experience comes almost entirely from the perspective of African American characters separates "The Butler" from past Oscar-friendly dramas, including "The Help." When Daniels' movie screened last Sunday afternoon at the academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, it won loud ovations from a crowd that stayed for a post-screening Q&A with director Daniels, writer Danny Strong and actors Whitaker, Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Elijah Kelley and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The applause continued at Sunday screenings for the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild. If momentum holds, the cheering might carry all the way to the Oscars on March 2.
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