Pulling together the financing for an epic about the civil-rights movement was not easy, but Lee Daniels’ box-office hit The Butler has challenged conventional wisdom about audiences for African-American and political stories. John Hazelton reports.

It took a village to make Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Actually, more like a town.

With 24 credited producers and executive producers, many of whom were also investors, a populous cast including four Oscar winners and an unusually complex financing plan, this epic drama set against the backdrop of the US civil-rights movement required an epic effort to bring it to the screen - an effort that might help change industry attitudes towards black and political films.

It was just after Barack Obama’s historic 2008 election to the US presidency that Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal read an article in The Washington Post about Eugene Allen, an African-American man who had worked behind the scenes in the White House from the 1950s to the 1980s, becoming butler to presidents including John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Sony optioned the article for the late Laura Ziskin, the well-regarded Spider-Man producer and activist, who, together with her producing partner Pam Williams, took the idea to Danny Strong, writer of political HBO film Game Change.

Eager to tie the butler’s story into the civil-rights movement and informed by six months of research, Strong hit on the idea of creating a composite central character - butler Cecil Gaines - with a son deeply committed to the movement, allowing the film to cut from scenes of sit-ins and marches to concurrent and emotionally connected scenes in the White House.

The radical son, Strong explains, “was the key device for putting the entire story together. The film is a father-son relationship that takes you through the history of the civil-rights movement. All the history is true but the family dynamic is fictionalised so that the family can be a conduit to tell the true story of the movement.”

By the time Strong turned in his first draft, Lee Daniels was hot off the Oscar-nominated Precious, and his name was at the top of Ziskin’s list of potential directors. At the time, he was attached to Selma, a film about Martin Luther King’s role in the civil-rights movement, but Daniels was swayed by Ziskin’s reputation and by The Butler’s dramatic scope.

“The story was important to me because I’d never seen a film that chronicled the civil-rights movement from the beginning into the Obama administration,” Daniels says. “This film puts a perspective on things that people went through, even in my lifetime, so that we could do things like vote.”

Also important, the director adds, was the fact the story “goes beyond black and white, because it’s a father-son story on top of being a civil-rights story. It transcends race, it transcends America - it’s universal.”

Though the producers also fielded interest from other directors - among them Steven Spielberg - when “forces of nature” Daniels and Ziskin met, recounts Pam Williams, “there was a love fest, and we knew who was going to direct our movie”.

Meetings with Sony did not go as well, however. The studio was willing to commit to a budget of only $20m, far short of the $35m (without talent costs) that Ziskin and Williams had calculated.

When Sony opted out, the pair shopped the project to other studios and independents but came up against the conventional wisdom that African-American-themed films do not work in international markets. “All of them said no, because the foreign value everyone was putting on the movie was pretty much nil,” Williams reports.

Attracting investors

It was then that Ziskin, continuing to work on the project despite her ongoing battle with breast cancer, found the inspiration for a different approach.

Reading about the absence of black actors and film-makers from the 2011 list of Oscar nominees, the producer encountered the idea that in order to change the culture of the film industry, African-Americans needed to be more involved in making films.

“Laura was so inspired by the concept,” Williams explains, “that she said, ‘Great, we’ll go out to African-Americans of wealth who care about the message of this movie and care on another level about this movie getting made.’

“So we made a list of wealthy African-Americans who we knew had an interest in films and just started making phone calls.”

Sheila Johnson, co-founder of cable network Black Entertainment Television, was first on board, investing a reported $2.7m herself and bringing in several other African-American entrepreneurs to contribute to what was then - after Ziskin and Daniels had taken major fee cuts - the project’s $25m target budget.

Former basketball star Michael Finley became another significant investor and Buddy Patrick, the white New Orleans native who founded that city’s Windy Hill Pictures, became the largest single provider of what ended up being the project’s $16m in equity backing.

Ziskin’s death in June 2011 was a blow to everyone involved with the film.

But Williams was determined to go on with the project and, recruiting independent finance expert Cassian Elwes as another producer, she continued the effort.

In a deal brokered by Creative Artists Agency, Icon UK came in with a $6m guarantee against foreign sales, providing the project with valuable upfront finance. Because the company was restructuring its own distribution division, Icon subcontracted international sales duties to IM Global, which, according to Williams, pre-sold the film well above expectations at Cannes in 2012.

Tax rebates from the state of Louisiana of $6m and $2m in gap financing made up the remainder of what was in the end the film’s $30m budget.

Wooing the cast

Casting The Butler involved another kind of commitment to the film’s story and message. David Oyelowo, the UK actor who appeared in Daniels’ The Paperboy, was first in, getting the part of Cecil’s radical son Louis on the basis of his auditions for the role of Martin Luther King in Selma.

Oyelowo says that when he first read the script, “I didn’t want to like it because I was hell bent on doing Selma. Much to my chagrin, I loved it. I was amazed by how much history and family and racial politics had been crammed into one script.”

To play Cecil’s wife, Gloria, Daniels wanted Oprah Winfrey, who had been an executive producer on Precious but had not acted on the big screen since 1998’s Beloved. “I remembered her work in The Color Purple and I thought what a great comeback to the screen it would be,” says Daniels.

Both director and star had their anxious moments about such a high-profile casting choice but, says Daniels: “Once I saw that she could disappear and become Gloria, I was OK.”

Casting the part of Cecil was a lengthier process, with Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard (who both ended up with other roles) and Denzel Washington being linked at various points.

Daniels speculates that the passivity of the Cecil character - who clashes with his son over how to deal with the white world - “was really frightening to black stars”. But it was not a barrier to Forest Whitaker who, to Daniels surprise, agreed to audition with Winfrey for the role.

Says Daniels: “We knew instantaneously that he was the man.”

Casting some major white stars - including Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman and Robin Williams - in smaller roles was done partly to broaden the film’s appeal. “We had been told by every studio that no-one was going to see the film, that this was not a commercial film,” Daniels says. “So it was a very conscious decision to bring people in. But they also had to work creatively. We paid them nothing, but I think they were really blown away by Danny’s script and they wanted to be part of a cause,” the director adds.

Moving Washington

The Butler shot in New Orleans - triggering the Louisiana tax rebates - for what Daniels describes as a “very gruelling” 41 days over the summer of 2012, building a set of Cecil and Gloria Gaines’ Washington DC house at the city’s Second Line Studios and, for White House scenes, renting one of the several Oval Office sets available to film and TV productions.

Given the story’s four-decade time-span and wealth of characters, the shoot was always likely to be logistically tricky, even after the decision was made to substitute archival footage for some planned shots of civil-rights demonstrations.

But the shoot was complicated further when Hurricane Isaac, a tropical cyclone that caused billions of dollars worth of damage and 41 fatalities, descended on New Orleans.

Cast and crew had to be evacuated from the city for almost two weeks and when they returned had to deal with power outages and the unavailability of local government buildings that had been scheduled for use as sets.

The silver lining was the respite the weather gave to a hard-worked production. “Believe it or not, we were relieved to have a hurricane,” says Oyelowo. “It gave us two weeks off in the middle of the shoot and, honestly, I would have been seriously concerned for Lee’s health if we hadn’t had that two-week hiatus.”

Dark subject matter

Sometimes the film’s subject matter darkened the mood on set. “There’s no way of faking racial epithets being thrown at you all night or of re-enacting being hosed down,” says Oyelowo of scenes depicting black activists being abused by white opponents. “Those were days when it was definitely hard to shake the fact this actually happened to people and there was no-one there to call ‘Cut’.”

Other days, though, had lighter moments, as when Daniels, trying to shoot a scene of Gloria Baines washing clothes, amused the crew by teasing Winfrey about the billionairess’s unfamiliarity with the details of doing laundry. “She got the joke, but I think her feelings were hurt briefly,” says the director.

The film’s post-production period had complications of its own. First, The Weinstein Company (TWC), which during production had struck a deal to distribute in the US - on a gross corridor basis and with a reported $30m marketing commitment - brought the film’s release date forward from October 2013 to August, giving Daniels a much tighter editing schedule.

Then there was the unwanted distraction of a title dispute with Warner Bros, whose library contains a 1913 silent movie called The Butler. The dispute was settled by TWC agreeing to give its film the official moniker Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In the end, of course, the effort required to bring the film to the screen has been validated in more ways than one.

Finding the audience

The Butler’s box-office performance, meanwhile, suggests that films with African-American or political content have more commercial potential than the studios and independents approached by Ziskin and Williams during their search for funding believed.

In the US, TWC positioned The Butler as an alternative to summer popcorn movies and used the story’s family relationships to appeal to both black and white audiences. “With a lot of big-action movies coming out, there was a clear space for an adult drama, so we sold it that way,” says TWC president of marketing Stephen Bruno. “We knew from testing that we had a wonderful movie that people loved. We weren’t sure [about crossover potential], but we were very pleasantly surprised that it was embraced by a wide audience.”

The result was a chart-topping $24.6m opening on August 16 and a gross to date of $116.5m [as of Jan 19], with white movie-goers reportedly making up 55% of the audience and black movie-goers 35%.

IM Global sold The Butler for every remaining international market at Cannes in 2012 and TWC eventually picked up the film for the UK and Canada too, selling on rights to local distributors Entertainment Film Distributors and eOne.

Now released in about two thirds of the international marketplace, The Butler has so far grossed more than $51m outside the US. And that, suggests Williams, who initially ran the TV side of Ziskin’s production company, puts to bed the conventional wisdom about audiences and films with black subject matter.

“As someone relatively new to movie-making, it did not make sense to me that a movie that had this strong a message and an important story to be told couldn’t get made in Hollywood,” says Williams of her experience pushing The Butler through its difficult gestation.

“The myth that African-American and American political stories aren’t of interest overseas is certainly dispelled by this movie.”