‘The Butler’ Box Office and Political Agendas


All human beings have biases and opinions. That includes the subsection of reporters, critics, and journalists who are human beings. It’s only natural to hope that your personal point of view is borne out by the facts, and to take a some pleasure in reporting it when it is. The movie you loved had a killer weekend at the box office? Wonderful! The movie you hated totally bombed? Schadenfreude!

And when it goes the other way — when the awful sequel is a hit and the masterpiece is a flop — you shrug, you say, “Oh well,” and you do your job anyway. That’s because you’re a grown-up adult who accepts reality, and as such you are comfortable with the fact that not everyone shares your opinions.

Or, if you’re driven by a political agenda and willing to be dishonest, you twist the facts and pretend they support your point of view even though they don’t, as the conservative website Newsmax did this week with “The Butler.”

Even before it was released, Lee Daniels’ “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels, was scorned by some conservative media outlets (including Newsmax) for two reasons. One, its portrayal of St. Ronald Reagan was reportedly not entirely favorable; and two, Nancy Reagan was being played by Jane Fonda. Back in 1972, you see, liberal lefty anti-war communist traitor Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam and infamously posed for photographs that made it look like she wanted to shoot down American planes. She has apologized for that part a few times (usually when she has a movie coming out), but it remains a sticking point. For some conservatives, casting Fonda as Nancy Reagan is a slap in the face, like casting Osama Bin Laden as George Washington.

So that’s the background. Some people wanted “The Butler” to fail for reasons entirely unrelated to the film’s quality as art or entertainment. Which is fine! I hope “Transformers 4″ is a flop, even if it’s really good (it won’t be), solely because I savor the idea of Michael Bay failing at something. I would enjoy that. But, see, the difference between me and Newsmax is that I’m not going to misreport the facts to convince people that “Transformers 4″ DID bomb if it didn’t.

Here’s the headline on the conservative website’s Aug. 26 story:

‘Butler’ Box Office Sales Plummet by One-Third

And the first sentence: “The movie ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ saw its weekend box office receipts plummet by nearly a third, from $24.6 million in its opening week to $17 million last week, after a storm of protests from Republican and veterans groups.”

Strictly speaking, and allowing that “week” should properly be “weekend,” everything in that sentence is true. Box Office Mojo confirms that “The Butler” made $24.6 million its opening weekend, and $16.5 million its second weekend. (Newsmax was probably going by the studio’s Sunday night estimates — a common practice — which had “The Butler” earning $17 million.) That is a decline of 33%, which is indeed “one-third.”

And, true enough, the film’s second weekend at the box office did occur “after” some groups protested the movie. There is no disputing the chronology. One of those things definitely took place after the other thing.

But here’s the crucial fact that Newsmax ignored:

A 33% drop from opening weekend to second weekend is really, really good! The average second-weekend drop-off for wide releases in 2013 has been 51.8%. Thirty-three percent for “The Butler” is one of the SMALLEST declines of the year. Out of 75 wide releases in 2013, only four films have done better than that: “Side Effects” (32.6%), “Escape from Planet Earth” (32.5%), “We’re the Millers” (32%), and “Identity Thief” (31.5%).

Anyone who knows what they’re talking about sees a 33% decline and says, “Wow! That’s terrific!” The only way you see it as a “plummet” is if you’re looking for any excuse to say the movie has failed.

What Newsmax did is the equivalent of declaring, “Ty Cobb was a terrible player! He only got a hit 366 out of every 1,000 at-bats!” But as anyone who knows baseball will tell you (and as my brother told me), Cobb’s lifetime batting average of .366 is the highest in major league history.

We’ll give Newsmax the benefit of the doubt and assume that since the movie business isn’t their usual beat, they didn’t realize 33% is a GOOD number (one of the best of 2013) and not a bad one. If they knew that and chose to spin it anyway, on the assumption their readers wouldn’t know any better, then they’re dishonest. Surely they wouldn’t do that on purpose.

Wait, what’s that? Newsmax runs box office stories regularly? They even have a writer on staff who primarily covers the movie industry (though he didn’t write this particular article)? Huh. That certainly weakens the doubt we were giving them the benefit of.

“The Butler’s” second-weekend non-failure also puts the lie to the second part of Newsmax’s lead: “…after a storm of protests from Republican and veterans groups.” There may well have been protests, and it’s entirely possible that some people changed their minds about seeing the movie because of them. But I wouldn’t exactly brag about a protest’s efficacy when the targeted movie scored one of the lowest second-weekend box-office declines of the year. Rather, I wouldn’t brag about it unless I was confident my readers wouldn’t know I was full of crap, and if I wanted them to think their actions had had more effect than they actually did.

All of this has nothing to do with my own opinion of “The Butler,” which I didn’t particularly like, or with my political views, which it is safe to say are somewhere left of Newsmax’s. What it has to do with is my opinion of facts, numbers, and context: I like them. I’m a big fan.

It’s OK to hope the facts end up supporting your view. It’s not OK to mislead people when they don’t, even in comparatively trivial areas like box office reporting. Skewing the truth to fit a political agenda only hurts the organization doing the skewing. If you’ll lie about something as dumb as the box office, what else will you lie about?

— Film.com