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How Many Producers Does It Take To Produce ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’?

How Many Producers Does It Take To Produce ‘Lee Daniels' The Butler’?

Quite a few it turns out. Definitely more than a few. More
something like 41 producers, give or
take a few.

That’s quite a staggering number. In fact, The Butler just may hold the record for
the most producers ever credited for a single film.

I’m hard pressed to think of any film that had just as many.
I recall that Kasi Lemmons’ The Caveman’s Valentine had 19 producers credited on the film, and
back then people were stunned. And The king’s
Speech
has 16 credited producers, and that raised some eyebrows  But 41 for one film? That’s an achievement all
by itself.

In my recent conversation with Lee Daniels (HERE) he said that he “walked the streets” to find the
money to get this film made. He wasn’t kidding. It’s a battle and not for the
squeamish. One has to admire his perseverance to get The Butler off the ground.

And yet considering how the film industry has changed so drastically
just over the past few years, it may not be all that shocking. And when it
comes to the world of independent filmmaking, the rules have changed so
drastically that having 41 producers for one film should not be all that
surprising and, perhaps, a sign of
things to come.

So why did it take so many?

Well, recent articles in Variety and The Hollywood
Reporter explain exactly how this came to be.

The film was the final project of producer Laura Ziskin along with her producing
partner Pam Williams. They saw the Washington Post article about Eugene Allen – a black butler who worked
at the White House for eight presidents and immediately thought it would be a great
idea to turn into a film. 

They originally approached all the major studios, and despite
Ziskin’s track record, including producing the Sam Raimi Spider Man movies which have made billions of dollars
worldwide, all the studios rejected her project.

According to Williams: “It didn’t fit into the
business model driven by international sales. It was a period piece that was
about American politics. It was an African-American film. It seemed to have
everything against what the studios are looking for in terms of the franchises,
the big tent poles,”

Not letting the studio rejections stop them, Ziskin and
Williams decided to raise the money for the film independently. They budgeted the film originally at a low $25 million though it eventually rose
to $30 million, which, considering the huge name cast and
that it’s a period film spanning several decades, makes it practically a low
budget film, with everyone working for well below their “quotes.”

With Daniels now on board as director, along with his producing
partner Hilary Shor, the producers first
reached out to Sheila Johnson, who is the vice chairman of Monumental
Sports & Entertainment
, and part owner of three pro sports teams: the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s
Washington Capitals
and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. She is also CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, which owns several luxury
properties.

But of course Johnson, is also known as the co-founder of
BET and the former wife of former
BET co-founder Robert Johnson.

She truly loved the script and agreed to help finance the
film with $2.7 million of her own money, later saying that “in Hollywood, no one wants to step up to the plate to support
African-American films.”

Johnson then started to campaign to bring in other African-American
investors, though most never returned her phone calls. However, she was able to bring
in a few, such as millionaire businessman Earl
W. Stafford, Harry I. Martin Jr.,
president/CEO of Intelligent Decisions, and even her son, Brett Johnson.

And then the project got hit with a blow when Ziskin
died after a long battle with breast cancer in June 2011. That spurred Daniels and
Shor to approach former agent and indie
film producer Cassian Elwes, who has
some 60 films to his producing credit, and they, along with Williams, continued
to look for money.

By early 2012, the Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik’s British financing and
production company Icon U.K. came on
board with a $6 million guarantee
against foreign presales. And shortly after that, Stuart Ford’s IM Global took the project to Cannes, where he closed $6
million
in sales to foreign distributors. (Which proves the lie that there’s
no interest in black themed films overseas.)

Soon other investors were coming in, such as former NBA
player Michael Finley and Buddy
Patrick
, who comes from a wealthy New
Orleans
family. Eventually the team was able to raise $16 million with the rest covered through tax rebates and foreign presales.

With each new investor, also came the on-screen credit
of “Producer”
or “Executive Producer.” According to lawyer Schuyler Moore, who Williams brought in to work out all the deals
for the investors, “I’ve done billion-dollar financings, and this was worse than a
billion-dollar financing.”

And in case you’re wondering, Oprah was not one of the
investors in the film. Curious, no?

After shooting began on the film, Sheila Johnson got a
call from Harvey Weinstein who was
interested in getting domestic distribution rights for The Butler for The Weinstein
Company
and the rest was history.

And that is how
you get a film made nowadays (without
Kickstarter
).  Easy as pie…

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Comments

Qstorm

I just don't know if I'm ready for yet another film about gracious subservience so soon after The Help.

Larry Klug

This whole article is a ridiculous attempt by Sheila Johnson to promote herself. The numbers and the story are incorrect.

LeonRaymond

The most disturbing line in this article was "Johnson then started to campaign to bring in other African-American investors, though most never returned her phone calls." damn we can never count on our own people.

But more to the point Sergio This is the new normal for getting indies done I am sure the list of producers will climb higher as you might have to credit folks who give small money to get the project moving forward. I won't be surprised to that amount of producers rise on Indies cause every body wants that film credit, that shit's like the Holy Grail -Great article Sergio!

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