'The Help' Kicks Off Awards Season on the Eve of Theatrical Debut

4:27 PM PST 08/09/2011 by Pamela McClintock
Dale Robinette/DreamWorks

The DreamWorks and Disney pic opens in theaters Wednesday, and stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard.

Tate Taylor’s The Help—based on Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about Southern white women and their maids--hits theaters on Wednesday in a bid to build word of mouth heading into the weekend.

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The midweek debut isn’t the only thing distinctive about The Help, set on the cusp of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. The film’s premiere at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn theater in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night marked the first unofficial awards event of the year.

DreamWorks produced and co-financed the movie with Participant Media, while Disney is distributing and co-marketing per its deal with DreamWorks.

Reviewers are already buzzing about the performances in The Help, whose cast is led by Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain.

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Taylor, Stockett’s childhood friend, makes his feature directorial debut with The Help and wrote the adapted screenplay.

Stockett’s novel has sold more than three million copies and spent 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Set in Stockett’s hometown of Jackson, Miss., The Help explores the uneasy relationship between white women and their African-American maids when one young woman (Stone) enlists the help of two maids to expose how they are treated.

The cast also features Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Mike Vogel, Ahna O’Reilly and Anna Camp.

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The Help cost a modest $25 million to produce, and is expected to open in the $20 million range over its five-day debut, in line with the openings of female-skewing August films Julie & Julia and Eat Pray Love.

For the weekend itself, DreamWorks and Disney are anticipating $15 million in grosses, making in unlikely that it will come in No. 1 (opening Friday are Final Destination 5, 30 Minutes or Less and Glee: The 3D Concert Movie).

But a No. 1 opening isn’t necessary to The Help’s success, if it has the sort of playability that previous female films opening in August have enjoyed. Priming the ground, DreamWorks and Disney have hosted more 300 screenings of The Help in the weeks leading up the film’s release.

The Help is tracking best among older woman, as expected, but the filmmakers hope men will begin showing up as word spreads.

DreamWorks needs a hit. Cowboys & Aliens, which DreamWorks produced with Universal, could prove a costly stumble unless it does big business overseas.

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