"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is not your typical summer movie. It's a serious historical drama, with a predominantly African-American cast, examining a period that's still a sore spot and a source of controversy (the Civil RIghts era), with a prestige cast that may well generate several nominees at Oscar time. That such a movie was coming out in the middle of August led many pundits to expect a victory this weekend for "Kick-Ass 2," the summer's last comic-book hero movie/action comedy.
And yet, Sunday's numbers saw "The Butler" sweep its way to an easy win, with an estimated $25.0 million debut. Meanwhile, "Kick-Ass 2" looked like it might premiere in fourth place. (As of Sunday, early numbers had it tied with holdover "Elysium" at about $13.6 million each, with "Elysium" having a slight $32,000 edge.)
In hindsight, it wasn't a fair fight. Turned out "The Butler" had a lot more going for it than it may have appeared on the surface, including a superheroine of its own. And "Kick-Ass" had a lot less. Here are the reasons "The Butler" cleaned up while "Kick-Ass" got its you-know-what kicked.
Harvey Weinstein. Give credit to the king of indie showmen and Oscar campaigners. No one can milk a controversy better than he can, as he proved once again during the dispute with Warner Bros. over the title (Warners has a "Butler" of its own). Weinstein's solution, to put director Daniels' name up front, is pretty brilliant. It instantly turns Daniels into a brand-name (à la Tyler Perry) while giving the movie cachet as the product of an auteur's vision.
Lee Daniels. The director will get credit for creating a sweeping historical epic with an all-star cast for the bargain-basement price of just $30 million -- a figure that the movie's box office should easily surpass in the coming weeks. (There are others who deserve partial credit here, like screenwriter Danny Strong, but thanks to Weinstein's maneuver, most of the credit will go to Daniels.)
Oprah Winfrey. One major coup Daniels should get credit for is coaxing Winfrey (one of his producers on "Precious") back in front of a movie camera for the first time in more than a decade to play the butler's earthy, troubled wife. Not just because having her in the cast guarantees that she'll use her superpower as a human megaphone and publicity magnet to promote the film, but also because Daniels got her to give a real performance, one that already has some pundits predicting an Oscar nomination.
That Cast. Besides Winfrey, there's also Oscar talk for previous winner Forest Whitaker in the title role of long-serving White House butler Cecil Gaines. He lead an all-star cast that's an embarrassment of riches -- aside from fellow valets Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, few of the big guns in the cast get much more than a walk-on. Besides Vanessa Redgrave, Mariah Carey, and Terrence Howard, there's the curious parade of waxwork presidents, from Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower to Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Not every co-star is aptly cast, but there's so many that the novelty factor alone may have been a box office draw.
That Long Wait. Meanwhile, "Kick-Ass 2" finally arrived in theaters a full three-and-a-half years after the original. That's about the same gap between original and sequel that separated "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" from last week's follow-up "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters." As the "Percy Jackson" movies showed, that's really too long to wait for a sequel, especially for a franchise whose appeal is tenuous at best.
Cult Appeal. At least the "Percy Jackson" franchise is popular overseas -- enough for studio accountants to think a sequel was worth it. But "Kick-Ass" can't even make that claim. The 2010 film, based on an obscure superhero parody comic-book, grossed about $48 million in North America and an equal amount abroad. A lot of domestic flops this summer have been saved by their overseas grosses, but "Kick-Ass 2" is not likely to be one of them. The sequel cost an absurdly low $28 million to produce, and yet, even at that modest cost, it's likely to have trouble recouping its budget.
Jim Carrey. The supporting actor is the biggest name in the cast. Unfortunately, he refused to help promote "Kick-Ass 2," noting that he filmed his role before last December's schoolhouse massacre in Newtown, Conn., which inspired in the comedian a change of heart about being part of such an ultraviolent movie. His making the talk-show rounds last week could have generated a healthy boost for the film's box office.
Competition. There were four new wide releases this weekend; besides "The Butler" and "Kick-Ass 2," there were also "Jobs" and "Paranoia." As it turned out, neither film was much of a threat (the Steve Jobs biopic opened in seventh place, while the Liam Hemsworth techno-thriller didn't even crack the top 10), but it was still a bad weekend to open a raunchy, R-rated action comedy. Viewers who wanted one of those chose holdover "We're the Millers," which finished second this weekend with an estimated $17.8 million, holding on to two-thirds of last week's business. There's also "2 Guns," holding on at No. 8 with an estimated $5.6 million in its third weekend.
Word-of-Mouth. According to CinemaScore, "The Butler" earned an A from audiences, indicating just about the strongest possible word-of-mouth. "Kick-Ass 2" earned a B+, meaning its word-of-mouth was just so-so.
The "Help" Factor. "The Butler" is actually not the first prestige period film about the still-touchy Civil Rights era to thrive in an August release. "The Help" did the same thing two years ago. And "The Butler" should avoid some of the controversy that afflicted "The Help," whose quietly seething black housemaids were condemned by some critics and historians as racial caricatures seen through the eyes of a white protagonist (and white filmmakers). "The Butler," on the other hand, has a black director and no white protagonist; it directly addresses the issue of its main character's servility and silence amid the activism of the Civil Rights years; and it's based on a true story. It has a long way to go to reach the neighborhood of "The Help"'s $170 million domestic gross, but both movies prove there's an audience for serious films about America's tumultuous racial history, even in a season of self-styled superheroes in spandex.