How Black Churches Helped Fuel 'The Butler's' Big Weekend

The Weinstein Co. appealed heavily to the black faith-based community in promoting Lee Daniels' The Butler, a strategy that appears to be paying off.

Over the weekend, Daniels' historical drama debuted to a stellar $25 million, easily winning the crowded box office race and exceeding Hollywood's expectations. The $30 million-budgeted movie is based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House through eight presidential administrations. Forest Whitaker plays the butler, named Cecil Gaines in the film, while Oprah Winfrey plays his wife.

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Of those buying tickets, 39 percent were African-Americans, an especially strong turnout. TWC and other box office observers believe church groups played a key role in driving the film's opening, noting a large number of advance ticket sales. Major markets where the film overperformed in predominately black theaters include Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, Atlanta and Chicago (Winfrey's home turf).

"While the biggest numbers came from the larger markets, proportionately the mid- and smaller-sized towns over-indexed, which can be attributable to some extent to the outreach that we did to the faith-based groups," says Erik Lomis, president of distribution for TWC.

In targeting this demo, TWC's marketing team created a scripture guide and faith-oriented trailer.

The spiritual guide offers inspirational quotes from the cast and crew, themes from the film with accompanying questions for reflection and relevant scripture passages. The guide states in its introduction: "Its aim is to help relate the moving story of Cecil Gaines to our own personal stories as we endeavor to live more authentic Christian lives."

The specialized trailer differs from the original trailer most noticeably because of its accompanying music, which is anchored by Leona Lewis’ “I Know Who I Am,” a gospel ballad about overcoming adversity.

Moreover, the original trailer ends with Winfrey's character saying, “Everything you are, everything you have, is because of that butler.” The faith-based trailer also includes that line, but ends with Whitaker's character saying, “God was looking out for us, I guess.”

The Weinstein Co. also worked with Bishop T.D. Jakes, a powerhouse in the spiritual world and founder and senior pastor of mega church The Potter’s House of Dallas. Jakes helped get out the word to the faith-based crowd.

For Linda Watkins, church clerk at Greater First Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., support for The Butler comes from a very personal place. Allen, the butler on whom the film is based, was an usher at her church and Watkins knew him personally. Allen died in 2010 at the age of 80.

Watkins says church members are organizing trips to see The Butler as a group.

“[Church members] are excited that Mr. Allen is being represented, because it is his story,” Watkins tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They know that some things are different, but are very happy to have had him as a member of the Greater First Baptist Church family. This is why they’re going out as a group, as a church family, to see this movie.”

Studios releasing black-themed films often employ outreach specialists to court black viewers, and churches can play a large role in that process. Lee Daniels’ film, set in large part against the civil rights movement, has drawn other key African-American advocates.

Nolan V. Rollins, president/CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, feels that the film offers positive African-American images, and that’s a big part of the reason why he and his organization are encouraging members to see it. This coming weekend, the organization will host an entertainment summit where the portrayal of blacks in movies, television and other media will be discussed. The Butler is expected to be a topic of conversation.

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In addition, the NAACP showed its support for The Butler by hosting an Aug. 13 screening at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Daniels introduced his film, while cast members David Oyelowo and Elijah Kelley participated in a Q&A afterward.

D’kwon Stackhouse, special projects associate at the NAACP’s Hollywood office, moderated the event and says the film is important to the NAACP because the organization is concerned with how people of color are portrayed in different media. To Stackhouse, the film goes beyond religion and resonates with people on many different levels: “When there are movies that speak to such a diverse demographic, there are different layers that people can relate to.”

Adds Rollins: "I would hope that both the faith community and just the community in general would find the ‘them’ in this particular film."

Pamela McClintock contributed to this report. 

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