Lee Daniels’ The Butler emerged as the breakout hit of 2013’s American box office season. A word-of-mouth sleeper that would bank US$116million and featuring a cast strewn with Oscar winners, it was considered an awards season front-runner. But when nominations for the 2013 Golden Globes were announced this week, it was nowhere to be seen. It doesn’t take much to impress the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), the brilliant minds behind the Globes’ judging process. So why didn’t The Butler walk away with any mention come Hollywood’s second biggest awards evening? Or did the global press representatives get it exactly right?
1. It is The Foreign Press Association:
According to the Box Office Mojo site, nearly 72% of The Butler’s worldwide gross was domestic; a headline-grabbing hit at home, it only crept to an ok US$46million from the 28 territories in which it ran theatrically. That is the antithesis of the current industry mantra, ‘Domestic covers costs; foreign reaps the profit’. Overseas print and web outlets weren’t clamouring for content about The Butler, so the film was not high on the list amongst the roster of journos who provide coverage – and determine Globe worthiness.
2. Overseas critics didn’t follow their US peers:
Those ultimate purveyors of ‘event picture’ marketing, Bob and Harvey Weinstein (pictured, right), got word out early on the film, ensuring US critics saw The Butler as ‘an important work’. Offshore, their influence is far less potent and many critics drilled down on the film’s soft focus sentiment and simple-minded politics. The Financial Times said, “The Butler is like some bonkers Advent calendar of American history”, while The Globe and Mail opined, “…the White House feels like comic relief, with a parade of presidential caricatures.” The Rotten Tomatoes site has The Butler at 74%, undeniably at the low end of award season contenders. The HFPA have to work with these people and were clearly swayed by their colleague’s editorial.
3. But they nominated 12 Years A Slave and The Help:
Yes, they did, but look closer. 12 Years A Slave is a British director (Steve McQueen) and two British stars (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender), with global box office golden boy Brad Pitt on board as producer. The Help featured Hollywood’s It-Girl of the day, Emma Stone, playing an idealistic journalist (!) who comes to the rescue of downtrodden Mississippi maids. Let’s not forget they bestowed 5 nominations/2 trophies on Tarantino’s cartoonish slave-era revenge-fantasy Django Unchained just last year, so African American-themed stories aren’t off their radar…
4. …or are they?:
Despite closing in on US$100million at the homegrown box office, Brian Helgeland’s 42 (pictured, left) saw no love from the HFPA either. The racially-charged biopic of baseball legend Jackie Robinson featured much buzzed-about performances from Chadwick Boseman in the lead role and an against-type Harrison Ford as his mentor. But it has barely been seen in overseas markets, where sports pics and black history themes struggle – and where HFPA members earn their keep. The nominations shut-out of Ryan Coogler’s much-hyped urban-set drama Fruitvale Station, a Cannes winner and festival hit, adds weight to this argument. It took an Oscar-winning turn from Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side to get noticed and it still only took US$53million offshore, a meagre 17% of its worldwide gross; tellingly, she was the film’s only Golden Globe contender.
5. The HFPA are just calling it like it is:
The Butler hasn’t featured heavily in the awards season preamble. With several of the major critics groups having already handed out their gongs, The Butler has managed notices from second-tier ceremonies like the Satellites (3 nominations), Camerimage (a nomination for DOP Andrew Dunn) and The People’s Choice (1 nomination), with its only silverware from the Hollywood and Hamptons film festivals. If AMPAS honours Lee Daniel’s drama with a bevy of nominations come January 16, it might be seen as a shot across the bow of the Golden Globes growing popularity. Should the film be similarly ignored by Academy members…well, maybe the overseas scribes, the very same who deemed starlet Pia Zadora worthy of its highest honour in 1982's biggest industry scandal, will eventually be credited with some level-headed wisdom.