How 'The Butler' Grossed $100 Million

Lee Daniels (Francois Durand/Getty Images)
Lee Daniels (Francois Durand/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Lee Daniels' The Butler, about a black White House butler named Cecil Gaines who serves under eight U.S. presidents before, during and after the civil rights movement, doesn't have the trappings of a $100 million grossing film. But lo and behold, in a little more than a month after its domestic release, that's exactly what The Butler has become, according to Forbes.

Lee Daniels' The Butler has crossed $100 million as of today, ending its fifth weekend with $100.3m. The Weinstein Company release earned another $5.58m, down just 33% from last weekend. The Forest Whitaker/Oprah Winfrey Civil Rights drama should finish out with about $115m domestic, with the caveat that it may well end up reissued down the road if it scores during the awards season. 


When put in context with other movies released this summer that also did well, The Butler's success can be considered one of the biggest surprises of the season.

For one, the movie, based on real-life White House butler Eugene Allen, was the first film of 2013 to go No. 1 at the box office three weeks in a row. Big-budget movies such as Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2 did as they were expected in their opening weekends ($174.1 million and $83.5 million respectively), but neither they, nor any other film, had the forward momentum of Lee Daniels' The Butler

The Butler isn't a major studio production but, rather, an independent film. The movie cost $30 million to make, but getting there was not easy. It took a hodgepodge of moneymen and women to scrap together financing, bringing the total number of credited producers to 41. In an interview with The Wrap, suits at the Producers Guild of America admitted that didn't sit too well with them. 

"I wish that there weren't so many producer credits on this picture, because it is a little embarrassing for everyone within our community," said Producers Guild of America co-president Mark Gordon in an interview with TheWrap. "But I do understand that there's very little that someone won't do to get a movie made. And in the end, if you look at that movie and you appreciate what its message is, and you weigh what they had to do and what they ended up with, I get it."

Gordon could also have pointed out the elephant in the room: A black-driven story with a black-focused plot does not a box office hit make, The Help's success aside. As Sheila Johnson, one of the film's earliest investors, told the Hollywood Reporter, "In Hollywood, no one wants to step up to the plate to support African-American films."

Outside of Hollywood, one person who appreciated the message in the film was President Barack Obama. In an interview with Tom Joyner, the president revealed that he got choked up and shed some tears at a screening of the movie. He made his comments during the week commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, which led into Labor Day weekend, Hollywood's last big summer-movie weekend. Very rarely does a film get such esteemed word of mouth, and for it to come at the time it did could not have hurt The Butler.


Last but not least, the formidable ensemble cast cannot be ignored. Just look at the names on the movie poster.  With names like Robin Williams, Jane Fonda and John Cusack next to Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard and Lenny Kravitz, that's a lot of star power — and not just black star power.

Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.