WINNER OF THE WEEK: Lee Daniels' The Butler: Actually, there are a lot of winners associated with this one, starting with Harvey Weinstein, who milked a duplicate-title dispute with Warner Bros. for maximum publicity, resulting in his anointing director Lee Daniels as a household-name filmmaker. Then there's Daniels; not only is he now a name-before-the-title brand name like Tyler Perry, but he also gets props for making a sweeping Civil Rights epic with an all-star cast for just $30 million, then having it open at No. 1 with an estimated $25.0 million on a summer weekend against three other new wide releases.
Other winners on the Butler team: There's Oprah, who promoted the heck out of the movie, and whose role in it (her first big-screen part in over a decade) is already sparking Oscar talk. There's star Forest Whitaker, also inspiring Oscar chatter. And last but not least, there's Eugene Allen, the real-life White House butler whose story is fictionalized here. He died in 2010, but this movie will immortalize his struggles and triumphs.
One other winner: the notion that female-targeted, Oscar-baiting, Civil Rights-themed movies can thrive, even in August, well before Oscar movie season begins. The Help demonstrated this two years ago, but The Butler should cement the proof.
On another front, We're the Millers deserves to be counted as a winner, too. In its second week, the raunchy comedy lost just 33 percent of its debut business and finished in second place with an estimated $17.8 million, for a two-weekend total of $69.5 million.
LOSERS OF THE WEEK: The rest of the new wide releases. Some pundits had expected Kick-Ass 2, as the last action comedy of the summer, to beat The Butler, but it ended the weekend battling for third place with holdover Elysium, with both movies claiming about $13.6 million. (If Elysium's edge of $32,000 holds when final figures are released Monday, then Kick-Ass 2 will debut in fourth place.) Like last week's Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, there was a long, three-and-a-half year wait between a cultish-hit original and the sequel. (Even overseas, the 2010 Kick-Ass earned about $48 million, the same amount it earned in North America, so don't expect foreign grosses to save Kick-Ass 2 the way they have some of this summer's other domestic flops.) Plus, it had to compete for the R-rated comedy audience against the still-strong We're the Millers. And it didn't help that Jim Carrey, the cast's biggest name, refused to promote the ultraviolent film, saying he'd had a change of heart after the Newtown massacre last December. Even with the movie's remarkably modest $28 million budget, Kick-Ass 2 will have trouble recouping its cost.
As for biopic Jobs, the consensus was iSkippedIt. The Apple co-founder's story debuted at No. 7 with an estimated $6.7 million. Reviews were mixed-to-poor, and so was word-of-mouth. And even though Ashton Kutcher has been playing a brilliant computer mogul for two years on Two and a Half Men, few were buying him as Steve Jobs. The Sundance Festival flick cost just $12 million to make, but even if they release Jobs 2 with a Retina display, it may have trouble selling enough to turn a profit.
The week's least successful wide release debut was Paranoia, a techno-thriller that proved Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth is not a box office draw on his own, and that no one at this late date wants to see a rematch between Air Force One stars Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. The indifferently promoted movie opened in thirteenth place with an estimated $3.5 million, about one-tenth what it cost to make.
CASH AND KERI: At the art-house, Keri Russell's romantic comedy Austenland opened with an estimated $42,600 in four theaters for one of the biggest per-screen averages of the week, at $10,650. (Lee Daniels' The Butler opened with $8,527 per screen.) Also scoring well was Sundance favorite Ain't Them Bodies Saints, with $28,800 on three screens. (That's an average of $9,600 per venue for the Casey Affleck-Rooney Mara crime drama.) Meanwhile, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine continues to expand. It's at 229 theaters in its fourth weekend, earning an estimated $2.4 million, for a total of $9.5 million to date, making it a major hit for both Allen and indie films in general. Its per-screen average this weekend was $10,301, a hair behind Austenland.