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Oprah’s ‘The Butler’ Hopes to Kick Ass at Box Office

Weinstein Co. decided on wide release after numerous test screenings

It’s been more than a decade since Hollywood has tested the power of Oprah Winfrey on the bigscreen.

Now, the mogul and thesp is about to hit theaters in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and the pic’s potential upside could hinge on how willing her fans are to hit theaters to see her latest effort.

The dozens of financiers it took to make the movie are betting on Winfrey’s star power, too.

Tracking for the Weinstein Co.-distributed film currently is in the mid-teens, though some B.O. observers predict the pic could reach the high-teens, enough to rival Universal’s “Kick-Ass 2” for the top spot at the weekend box office. “Kick-Ass 2” should have a gross comparable to its predecessor, which opened with $19.8 million in 2010.

Still, the U sequel also has the potential to overperform in the $20 millions.

For “The Butler,” Weinstein has been riding a wave of free publicity centered on the film’s recent title change to include helmer Daniels. Also, Oprah, whose “Butler” role marks her first bigscreen appearance since 1998’s “Beloved,” made headlines last week after her shopping incident in Switzerland.

It’s unlikely those stories will affect box office much, but Weinstein has been actively promoting the film’s high-profile ensemble cast, including Forest Whitaker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Robin Williams, Jane Fonda, Alan Rickman, Terrence Howard and John Cusack.

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Weinstein screened the film early on to arthouse audiences, then screened it for African-Americans before a broad commercial sampling. All three groups tested positively, prompting Weinstein to release the film wide at around 2500 screens this weekend.

But like many indies, “Butler” traveled a bumpy path to get into theaters. Most movies in “Butler’s” upper-$20 million budget range require a handful of backers. “Butler” took more than 40.

“I’ve done billion-dollar financings, and this was worse than a billion-dollar financing,” said Stroock and Stroock attorney Schuyler Moore. Producer Pam Williams brought Moore on board to help work out deals for “Butler’s” backers. All in all, more than 35 people have credits with the word “producer” in their title on the film. Most of those people put money in to get it made.

“The budget kept going up and up and up and up,” Moore said of the increasingly expensive production. One thing that kept driving up the price tag? Re-enactments of protests from the civil rights era.

“Lee Daniels had a very expansive vision for (the movie) and we wanted to accommodate it,” Moore said. “He had wonderful vision, and to do it right, that’s what it cost.”

The financing also took advantage of tax incentives in New York and Louisiana, as well as investment from the Weinstein Co. to accelerate post-production, Moore said.

Along with “Butler” and “Kick-Ass 2,” Relativity Media’s Liam Hemsworth thriller “Paranoia” and Open Road’s Steve Jobs biopic “Jobs” bow wide on Friday.

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