As recently as last month, Lee Daniels' The Butler was looking like a box office mess.
The Weinstein Co., which owned the film rights, had just lost a legal battle with Warner Bros, which claimed that its 1916 short The Butler had title ownership. The courts agreed, forcing the studio to take down posters, its Facebook page, and change the title to add director Lee Daniels. On top of that, it would face a summer slate that included teen favorites: horror and fantasy films.
No matter. Butler fended off another raft of new films this weekend, taking its second consecutive box-office crown with $17 million this weekend, according to studio estimates from Hollywood.com.
The sophomore-week effort marks the latest hit for Hollywood's civil rights films - and may have pushed the Forest Whitaker drama into the Oscar race. Butler "made a pretty good case over the weekend that it belongs in the awards conversation," says Steve Pond, columnist for trade website TheWrap.com.
At a recent screening for academy members, Pond says, Butler received "the most enthusiastic reaction to any screening this year." He says the film could be a lock for "the people who voted for previous Weinstein winners like The King's Speech andThe Artist."
The buzz is the latest arrow in Butler's box-office quiver, which analysts say has brimmed since the studio decided last month to release the movie nationwide instead of in a slow rollout. Among the factors boosting Butler:
- Civil rights are hot in Hollywood: In addition to Butler, films that examine racism have flourished in 2013. Fruitvale Station, the $8 million story of a black man gunned down by police in Northern California, did $15 million. 42, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, stunned analysts with $95 million.
- An expanding base: In its opening weekend, about 76 percent of audiences was over 35 and 40% was African-American. This weekend, that number dropped to 63% over 35 and 33% African-American, indicating a widening demographic.
- The Oprah factor: Though Oprah Winfrey, who co-stars in the film, doesn't have the clout she has with books, she remains a force among female moviegoers, who were ready to listen. "After a season filled with CGI spectacle geared at young males, there's a ton of pent-up demand among older women," says Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo.
- Timing: While late August is a dumping ground for blockbuster wannabes, it can be fertile ground for fall-minded movies. The Help arrived in the same period in 2011 and did $170 million.
That left holdovers and weak newcomers to pick up Butler's scraps. Jennifer Aniston's comedy We're the Millers took second place in its third week with $13.5 million.Among the newcomers, the teen fantasy The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones took third with $9.3 million, followed by the comedy The World's End with 8.9 million. The Disney cartoon Planes rounded out the top five with $8.6 million.
The horror film You're Next, which some analysts predicted would win the weekend, fell well short of expectations with $7.1 million, good for seventh place. Final figures are due Monday.
Attendance is down about 3% from the same weekend last year, Hollywood.com says.