"Lee Daniels' The Butler" is expected to compete with the horror film "You're Next" and the young adult adaptation "Mortal Instruments: City of Bones" for the top spot at the box office this weekend, just one week after surprising Hollywood with a strong debut frame. For screenwriter Danny Strong, the continued success of the film proves that movies like "The Butler" are capable of making money in an industry dominated by franchises and sequels.
"When a movie like this does well, it's just great for the business. Then, more movies like this will get made," Strong told HuffPost Entertainment in a recent interview. "Partly how this movie got made was because 'The Help' was so successful. Had 'The Help' not been so successful, who knows if we would have gotten made. Now, we've gotten made and we're successful; '42' was successful financially. Hopefully this will start opening the door for more adult dramas in general, and dramas on this subject matter."
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and many other famous faces, "Lee Daniels' The Butler" focuses on the civil rights movement as told through the relationship between a White House service worker (Whitaker) and his rebellious son (David Oyelowo). Strong spent four years on the screenplay, which he based, in part, on the life of Eugene Allen.
"It's so difficult getting any movie made," Strong said. "To do a civil rights drama with an African-American cast, I don't know that we've seen that before. For audiences to go embrace it and for it to come in at number one at the box office -- it was just an extremely gratifying feeling."
The film's opening weekend, of course, was not without controversy: A Regal Cinemas theater in Silver Spring, Md. was criticized by patrons for ordering an enhanced police presence during showings of the Lee Daniels film. (In a statement, a representative from Regal noted that the police presence was to assist with security, owing to the fact that "The Butler" was so popular at the Maryland multiplex.)
"I think whoever ordered that security to do that to that audience needs to sit down and see our movie," Strong said when asked about the incident. "We made the movie not just for them, but in the hope that people like that would potentially be influenced in a positive way."
With "The Butler" continuing its theatrical run, HuffPost Entertainment spoke to Strong about reactions he's heard about the film from politicians, industry players and general audiences.
Lots of influential people have loved "The Butler" so far. What did you hear about the screening where George H.W. Bush saw the film? I heard it went great. There were public quotes from President Bush saying how much he loved the movie -- I think Barbara Bush had some quotes as well -- but Lee was sitting by them and he told me that they just loved it. It was a great experience for him to be watching it right next to them. He said they were really taken by it.
That seems to be happening with many viewers. We did screenings for Academy voters in New York and Los Angeles, and for the Producers Guild and Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild on both coasts, and they were giving us standing ovations after our screenings.
This film does have a lot of Oscar buzz for so early in the season. What do you think about that chatter? What's so great about the Oscar buzz right now is that it gets people more interested in seeing the movie. It's a really helpful to have that out there, because it makes people think that if other people are talking in those terms, the film is something they should go see. As far as our actual awards-season prospects, it would be amazing if we got to go through an awards season on this. I have to say that just the fact that the movie got made and people are going to see it -- I feel like I'm a winner already. If we're still talking about it in January, February and March, that'll be the icing on the cake. Right now, though, the cake is pretty darn good.
You've seen this film with a lot of audiences. Does one screening in particular stand out? I have one moment that kind of made the entire process -- the entire four years -- worth it, one thousand times over. A woman came up to me after a screening. I don't know how old she was -- maybe in her late 60s? She whispered in my ear, "I was a Freedom Rider and no one thanked me before. So thank you." I wrote the movie as a love letter to the Freedom Riders. To have an actual Freedom Rider come up to me and tell me that ... I started to tear up.
On the whole, though, the response has just been wonderful. I think we're really touching upon people in a way that's really affecting them -- in a way that we hope to affect them. I think people are seeing this in a unique perspective. It's the story of the civil rights movement through the eyes of an African-American family, and not through the eyes of a generous white person that we constantly see in these kinds of movies.
Which is what sets this film apart from something like "The Help." I definitely don't want to knock "The Help" or other films that tell civil rights stories through the eyes of white characters. For example, one of my favorite movies of all-time is "To Kill A Mockingbird." Those films, I think, are wonderful films. It's just too bad that those are the only films that exist about that era. I think, hopefully, there will be more films along these lines.
Are there plans to show the film to Barack Obama? I don't know. I certainly hope so. I think one of the problems why we weren't able to make it happen yet is because he's on vacation in Martha's Vineyard. I was told he was just out of town when the movie opened. I heard Michelle Obama saw it and loved it, but I have not heard if he had seen it or not. I'm hopeful that there will be a screening.
This interview has been edited and condensed.