The first thing you'll notice about The Butler—excuse us, Lee Daniels' The Butler—is all the stars. Nearly everyone in this movie, no matter how small a part, is somebody. But that just scratches the surface when it comes to just how many people it took to make this film.
The Hollywood Reporter's Pamela McClintock has a fascinating story out today about how a whopping 41 producers ended up credited on the film. It's a winding tale that shows how late producer Laura Ziskin began an appeal in 2011 to help fund this movie. Ziskin went to BET founder Sheila Johnson, who in turn recruited black investors like Earl W. Stafford. Ultimately, the company of Ukrainian-born billionare Len Blavatnik got on board, and the grandaddy of all producers, Harvey Weinstein, lent his help. "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 billionaire and an aspiring young film producer from one of New Orleans' wealthiest families," McClintock wrote.
As McClintock noted, 41 is a huge number for movies, when you compare it to other high-profile indies like The King's Speech, which had only 16. The number of producers is roughly correlated with how easy it is to raise money for a project, since producer credits are one of the easy perks to give financial backers. So the panopoly of producers on The Butler also speaks to the difficulty of bringing stories about black people to the screen. Johnson, who led what McClintock called an "an aggressive campaign to recruit other prominent African-American investors," told McClintock that "in Hollywood, no one wants to step up to the plate to support African-American films."
Ultimately 14 of those 41 credit names ended up on the film's one sheet, a number matched only by the number of actors highlighted on the poster above the title. (Not to mention the fact that the movie is now Lee Daniels' The Butler due to a fight with Warner Bros. over the name.)
While people like Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey get a hefty dose of screen time in the film others pop up only briefly. The movie, which clocks in at 132 minutes, trails Whitaker's titular butler character, Cecil Gaines, from his childhood on a plantation in the South to his start as a White House butler during the tenure of Dwight D. Eisenhower to Obama's election. Mariah Carey has a basically silent role as Gaines' mother while Jane Fonda pops up as Nancy Reagan only to promptly disappear. Not-quite-that-famous hunks like Jesse Williams and Alex Pettyfer also make barely a wave in the film. Daniels told Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast that when casting it was "matter of who’s right for the role," but while someone like Oprah gets time to settle in her role, someone like John Cusack never really gets the chance to convince you that he is actually the right person to play Nixon.
But while all the producers helped get the movie made and all the stars might draw viewers into the theater, it's one person that seems to be doing a lot of the promotional legwork for the movie: Oprah. Even more so than Whitaker, Winfrey has been out on the campaign trail for the film, using her power as an influencer to try and get people into the theater. She made a rare appearance with David Letterman, hosted a screening and panel via her magazine, and even now has inadvertently found herself embroiled in scandal.
We have to wait and see whether the movie, which opens on Friday, will have financial or awards season success. For now, know just how many boldfaced names are cheering for it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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