By John Horn and Steven Zeitchik
8:20 PM EDT, August 14, 2013
If it takes a village to raise a child, it took a principality to bring "Lee Daniels' 'The Butler' " to the screen.
A five-year odyssey of false starts, studio abandonment and piecemeal financing, "The Butler" arrives in theaters Friday with 37 different people credited as producers — among them retired NBA player Michael Finley and "Spider-Man" maker Laura Ziskin, who died more than two years ago.
Ziskin left money in her will to help bankroll the $30-million picture, inspired by the true story of a black White House staffer who served under eight different presidents at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The saga began in November 2008, when Wil Haygood's profile of White House butler Eugene Allen was published in the Washington Post. Quickly, Hollywood came calling.
The tale Haygood chronicled, titled "A Butler Well Served by This Election," was irresistible and unique. Allen, then 89, had worked at the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan. A fly-on-the-wall witness to history, he had come to Washington at a time when segregated bathrooms were still mandatory, lived through the civil rights revolution and in his twilight saw Barack Obama elected president. (Allen died in 2010 at age 90.)
Among those impressed by Haygood's feature was Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Pictures. She brought the article to the attention of Ziskin, who at that point had produced the first three "Spider-Man" blockbusters for the studio. Ziskin and her partner, Pam Williams, traveled to Washington to pitch Haygood on their take.
"Laura responded to the human story — what pulled us in was the humanity of the butler, the humility of the butler, and the poignancy of his relationship with his wife," Williams said. "She saw it as a personal story, not a history story."
Given the subject matter — a serious drama starring an African American with no action scenes — it was never going to be an easy movie to get financed. "The obstacles were really great," Williams said. But by early 2009, actor-writer Danny Strong ("Game Change") was hired to adapt the newspaper article, and Denzel Washington was rumored to star. Daniels, who had just released his gritty drama, "Precious," was hired to direct.
"We had an amazing script, an amazing director — we were ready to go," Williams said.
Made for $10 million, "Precious" had won two Oscars and grossed a respectable $47.6 million in domestic release, but Sony executives began to worry that "The Butler" would not be commercially viable. It looked as though the very elements that had impressed Ziskin and Williams — a period drama about politics and race with a black character at its center — ultimately torpedoed the project.
"All of those things worked against us in the studio system," Williams said. By the end of 2010, Sony had lost faith in the movie and abandoned it. "It was pretty devastating for all of us," Williams said.
Ziskin, who at that point was being treated for breast cancer and had co-founded the research organization Stand Up to Cancer, became even more determined to bring "The Butler" to the screen. "Laura said, 'OK. No problem. We will just keep going,'" Williams recalled.
Ziskin decided the best way to make "The Butler" was to enlist wealthy African Americans in its financing, and in early 2011 she met with Sheila Johnson, who with her former husband, Robert Johnson, had founded the entertainment network BET. She would become the movie's savior.
Johnson, a philanthropist, had served as a producer on some documentaries but had never invested anywhere near the amount of money Ziskin needed to help make "The Butler."
Johnson ultimately put $2.75 million into the film and promised Ziskin that she would ask other rich African Americans to join the cause. "I knew I had to make an investment myself if I was going to ask others to do the same," Johnson said. "I met with a lot of celebrities and talked to some rappers. And the only thing they said was, 'Cool.'"
Daniels was running into the same walls. "Hollywood would not allow me to make a black drama," he said last week in an interview in Manhattan, where he primarily lives. "I couldn't get this movie off the ground even after 'Precious' made $100 million around the world. So I had to go to anyone who would finance it."
Weeks of traveling the country yielded zero new investors, and less than two months after Johnson met Ziskin, the producer died. "On her deathbed, this was her last request: 'Get this movie made,'" Johnson said.
Ziskin's death galvanized Williams and Johnson. "As long as I kept the movie going forward, Laura remained very much alive," Williams said.
Despite the countless rejections, Johnson for months kept phoning friends and cold-calling strangers. "I was the only one hanging out there for a long time," she said.
She finally was able to land major investments from entrepreneur Earl Stafford and retired NBA player Finley (both of whom are credited as executive producers). By April 2012, most of the funds were in place. The tally of 37 producers in the film's press notes is largely made up of people who invested in, or helped bring investors to, the movie.
"The Butler" started filming last summer with Forest Whitaker playing the butler and Oprah Winfrey cast as his wife. Daniels said he was reluctant to ask the media mogul to help bankroll the production. "Because I wouldn't have been able to direct her," the director said. "I'm sure she would have given it to me. But she would have been like the boss. She was the employee, not the boss."
Johnson and some of the film's cast are hopeful that the film's doubters will be proved wrong.
"Hollywood's not in a hurry to tell these stories, unfortunately," said actor David Oyelowo, who plays one of the butler's sons. "But thankfully and hopefully, the audience response is going to encourage them to take a second look."
Johnson said she believes that of the film's many producers, one would be more thrilled than all the others that "The Butler" is finally coming to theaters: Ziskin.
"I know that she knows," Johnson said, "that this movie has come to fruition."
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.
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