Never underestimate the power of Oprah.
Heading into the weekend, prerelease audience surveys suggested that "The Butler" -- the first movie the media mogul has appeared in in 15 years -- would be in a tight race with "Kick-Ass 2" for No. 1. Instead, Lee Daniels' civil-rights drama performed at the high end of expectations, debuting with a healthy $25 million, according to an estimate from distributor Weinstein Co. "Kick-Ass 2," meanwhile, fell about $10 million short of projections, grossing just $13.6 million in its first three days in theaters.
The weekend's other two debuts proved to be major disappointments. "Jobs," a biopic of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, didn't compute with moviegoers, launching with an underwhelming $6.7 million. And "Paranoia," a thriller starring newcomer Liam Hemsworth, flopped with an embarrassing $3.5 million.
"The Butler" stars Forest Whitaker as a butler who served eight presidents at the White House; Oprah Winfrey plays his wife. The picture has been a hit with critics, and opening-weekend moviegoers loved it, too, assigning the film an average grade of A, according to marketing research firm CinemaScore. Roughly 60% of the crowd was female, and the movie appealed to an older demographic, with 76% of the audience over the age of 35.
“I think we trended older because of the subject matter -- the fact that it’s based on a true story interests a more educated, sophisticated crowd,” said Erik Lomis, president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment for Weinstein Co, which distributed the $30-million production.
In exit polls, he added, filmgoers said the No. 1 reason they saw “The Butler” was its subject matter, followed closely by Winfrey.
“Oprah Winfrey is a huge factor as to why this movie was so popular,” Lomis said. “People really want to see her, and she worked very hard on it.”
Indeed, Winfrey has been doing the media rounds to promote the film, attending New York and Los Angeles premieres, appearing on “The View” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” filming a special about the movie for her TV network OWN and sitting for brief interviews with 52 outlets during the film’s press junket. She has not been in a major motion picture since 1998, when her period drama "Beloved" tanked at the box office.
This weekend, "The Butler" performed especially well in Washington, D.C. -- probably due to its subject matter -- and played well with African Americans, who made up 39% of the audience. The movie is off to a start similar to that of "The Help," a film about domestic workers and civil rights that went on to become a blockbuster. After opening with $26 million in August 2011, "The Help" went on to collect $169.7 million in the U.S. and Canada.
Still, Lomis wasn't ready to make a comparison between the two films: "Talk to me in four weeks," he said.
As for "Kick-Ass 2," the violent, R-rated film got off to a worse start than the original, which debuted with $19.8 million in 2010 and ultimately collected $96.2 million worldwide. Unlike that first installment, the sequel was met with largely negative reviews, but its predominantly young male crowd was kinder than the critics, giving the movie an average grade of B+.
Fortunately for distributor Universal Pictures, the movie was independently financed by producer Matthew Vaughn for just $28 million. Universal picked up worldwide rights to "Kick-Ass 2" for about $29 million last year after Lionsgate -- which released the original domestically -- opted out of distributing the sequel.
The comic-book adaptation stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloe Moretz as foul-mouthed teens who pretend to be superheroes and fight street crime. The movie launched in 17 foreign markets this weekend and grossed $6.3 million, performing best in Britain and Germany.
Back in America, Ashton Kutcher's portrayal of "Jobs" failed to resonate with moviegoers. The poorly reviewed picture earned only a B- CinemaScore grade from its largely older opening weekend crowd. Open Road Films, the joint releasing venture between AMC Entertainment and Regal Entertainment, acquired the $13.5-million production before its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Kutcher, 35, has had a mixed track record at the box office in recent years. When he's paired with a popular leading actress, his movies tend to do better -- think Natalie Portman with 2011's "No Strings Attached," or Cameron Diaz in 2008's "What Happens in Vegas." But his more serious endeavors in independent film haven't caught on; his 2009 low-budget "Spread" also tanked.
At least Kutcher's weekend wasn't as bad as Liam Hemsworth's. The 23-year-old "Paranoia" star is known to most as a player in "The Hunger Games" franchise, and after this weekend it's unlikely that will change. While his brother, Chris, is becoming a movie star with the aid of the "Thor" franchise, the younger Hemsworth is not yet a box-office draw.
"Paranoia" -- Liam Hemsworth's first film in which he plays the lead -- notched just a 4% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and received a C+ grade from moviegoers. Relativity Media, which acquired the $35-million film last year, distributed the picture about a marketing whiz (Hemsworth) who is hired to spy on a competitor (Harrison Ford) by a billionaire executive.
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