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This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
No independent film is easy to get off the ground, but Lee Daniels’ The Butler stands apart. A complex arrangement has led to 41 producers and executive producers credited on the historical drama, which opens Aug. 16 (as a way of comparison, indie Oscar winner The King’s Speech had 16). Finding the $30 million budget meant uniting a disparate group, including one of America’s top African-American female entrepreneurs, a former NBA star, a Ukrainian-born billionaire and an aspiring young film producer from one of New Orleans’ wealthiest families.
PHOTOS: ‘The Butler’ Premiere: Oprah, Forest Whitaker and Anna Wintour Walk the Red Carpet
The saga began in early 2011, when the late producer Laura Ziskin and her partner Pam Williams approached Sheila Johnson about helping to finance a movie based on the true story of Eugene Allen, a black butler who worked at the White House for eight presidents and had a unique view of the civil rights movement.
Johnson, who grew the BET network into a multibillion-dollar company with her former husband, Robert Johnson, before selling it to Viacom, is now vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, making her the first African-American female to have an ownership stake in three pro sports teams, the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, of which she is president and general manager. She also is CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, a management company based in Middleburg, Va., that owns a string of luxury properties.
Johnson, who has financed four socially-minded documentaries, was immediately intrigued by The Butler and went home with Danny Strong‘s adapted script tucked away in her bag. “I read it, and then I read it again. I called them and said, ‘This movie has to be made,'” says Johnson, who quickly arranged a meeting with Daniels and signed on as an executive producer. “In Hollywood, no one wants to step up to the plate to support African-American films.”
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Putting up $2.7 million of her own money first, Johnson then embarked on an aggressive campaign to recruit other prominent African-American investors. “I wanted to set a precedent,” she said. Most people never got back to her. “It was very tough,” Johnson says. “I’m not going to lie to you.” She was able to bring aboard a handful of black investors, including Earl W. Stafford, an entrepreneur and philanthropist best known for organizing The People’s Inaugural Project, which paid for more than 300 disadvantaged youths to come to the nation’s capital for President Obama‘s 2008 inauguration, and Harry I. Martin Jr., president/CEO of Intelligent Decisions, a leading provider of IT services to the government (they both have an executive producing credit). Brett Johnson, her son and a shoe designer, also put up funds.
On the West Coast, a crisis was looming. Ziskin died from cancer in June 2011, and director Lee Daniels was frantic about the fate of Butler. He and his producing partner Hilary Shor appealed to veteran indie player Cassian Elwes, with whom they were working on The Paperboy. “I told him I would help,” says Elwes, who signed on as a producer. As Johnson and Williams — who has remained a driving force and has the first producing credit — continued to solicit funds, Elwes pursued more traditional avenues. However, many doubted the film’s international prospects despite a star-studded cast.
In spring 2012, Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik‘s British financing and production company Icon U.K. boarded Butler and put up a $6 million guarantee against foreign presales (Blavatnik is listed as an executive producer). Several months later, Stuart Ford‘s IM Global took the project to Cannes, where he closed $6 million in sales to foreign distributors. Two other key equity investors also entered the scene: former NBA star Michael Finley, whom Williams brought in as an executive producer, and Buddy Patrick, who is from a wealthy New Orleans family (he has a leading producer credit).
VIDEO: Lee Daniels on ‘The Butler’: ‘I Don’t Feel So Good About the Title’
Daniels and his sprawling cast — led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey (who sources say did not contribute money) — arrived in New Orleans in September 2012 with a cadre of producers. Within days, Sheila Johnson, who was on set, received a call from Harvey Weinstein, who is forever on the hunt for possible awards contenders. “I ran back and told Pam, ‘You’ll never guess who called,’ ” she recalls. The Weinstein Co. closed a deal for U.S. distribution rights without seeing any footage, committing to spend $30 million on marketing.
Weather delays would plague the shoot, driving up the cost. Elaborate sets and riot scenes also added to the bill. Originally, the budget was set at $25 million, but it rose to $30 million. “It got very hairy,” says Elwes. Johnson agrees, recalling how nervous Daniels was about shooting the cotton field scenes. “I remember Lee saying, ‘I hope we don’t have to glue cotton to the plants.’ Luckily, they were in bloom when we got there,” Johnson says.
Ultimately, the investors — some of whom are anonymous — put up a total of $16 million in private equity. The rest was covered through $6 million in tax rebates, $6 million in foreign presales and $2 million in gap financing.
“It’s a huge achievement,” says Weinstein Co. COO David Glasser. “This is not your typical independent movie. It’s spectacular how fierce these investors were in their quest to get this movie made. Harvey and I love it when a group of unknown people come together like this.”
Adds Daniels: “They put their money on the table when the studios wouldn’t. It’s a story that’s a movie within itself.”
Merle Ginsberg contributed to this report.
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