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."

john.horn@latimes.com

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.