The Butler: Have Oprah & Forest Whitaker Sacrificed Oscars for the Sake of the Audience?

Standout performances, rave reviews and a big win at the box office—but what one move could cost the cast their awards?

By Chris Hoenig


David Oyelowo, Lee Daniels, Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker at the "Lee Daniels' The Butler" LA Premiere at the Regal 14 Theaters on August 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, CA

Forest Whitaker has an Oscar. Oprah does, too. But one unselfish move may have cost the duo a chance at another.

Their new film, Lee Daniels' The Butler, opened to impressive reviews. Critic Richard Roeper raved about it: "I believe every American student over the age of 12 should see this film," he wrote. "But that doesn't mean it's one of those good-for-you movies that feels like a history assignment. This is an important film presented as mainstream entertainment. It's a great American story."

There's already a lot of buzz about Winfrey's Oscar-worthy performance in the movie, as well as Whitaker's. Both have Oscar statuettes on their mantles: Whitaker won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in 2006's The Last King of Scotland. Oprah received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars in 2011 (she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1985 for The Color Purple).

The team behind the film also knows a thing or two about winning Oscars. Lee Daniels directed Precious, which won two golden statuettes in 2009 (Daniels himself picked up a nomination for Best Director).

But it was a decision by The Weinstein Company (TWC), the film's distributor, that stands out. TWC was home to the last two Best Picture winners: The Artist in 2012 and The King's Speech in 2011. Its formula for Oscar success: the later the release, the better. The Artist was released in late November. The King's Speech hit theaters on Christmas Eve. And historically, December releases win the most Oscars, while October and November releases convert the largest percentage of nominations into wins.

So why release in August? The audience. TWC took the unusual step of moving up the release of The Butler to target its three key demographic groups, which are among the first to move away from summer action flicks: Blacks, women and older moviegoers. "People get tired of seeing all these blockbusters, but they're still in the moviegoing habit," Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker said. "Something that's smart can really stand out."

And the move worked: 76 percent of The Butler's opening weekend audience were over age 35, 60 percent were women and nearly 40 percent were Black. With $24.6 million in gross revenue, it easily won the weekend box office. "Almost like we planned it, right?" Erik Lomis, TWC's head of distribution, said, giving some insight into the audience strategy. "We knew it had broad appeal and that we'd be something different in the marketplace. It's a quality movie and that word is going to get out with younger people."

Is the move worth it for the actors? "The opportunity to share the story with America because, you've seen it, it's a great American story, told through the eyes and soul, so beautifully by Forest Whitaker, of the butler," Winfrey told ABC. "I love it because it's not often do you see middle-class African-American families with this kind of tenderness, connection, longevity.

"To see it with an audience is like seeing it anew," she added.

As for Oscar consideration: "Oprah will be fine if she wins it or not," said co-star Cuba Gooding Jr., himself no stranger to the Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor, 1996, Jerry Maguire). "I think she can rest assured that she's about to make a serious statement as a real actress no matter what Oscar comes her way or not."

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