Sheila Johnson may not be the household name that Oprah is, but she’s also one of the few Black women worldwide who can call themselves billionaires. The co-founder of BET Networks with her then-husband, Bob Johnson, added to her growing list of media, sports, and entertainment properties by helping “The Butler” get made. Johnson is one of a record 41 producers on the film. She gave The Tom Joyner Morning Show some insight into the business of movie making by explaining her participation in the movie, which topped the box office with $25 million in sales this past weekend.
“When it comes down to money and trying to get a film financed, it comes down to this is a $30 million dollar budget. When this script was brought to me by [producer] Laura Ziskin herself, along with [producing partner] Pam Williams, they couldn’t get one studio to look at this script. So it then became an independent movie and that put us into a whole ‘nother ballgame. I read the script once or twice and I said ‘Look, this movie has got to be made.’ “
Original producer Ziskin, who was behind the “Spiderman” trilogy died of breast cancer before “The Butler” went into production. She left money in her will to help get the movie made. Even while shooting the film, Daniels continued to seek financing. Johnson put in $2.5 million of her own money and personally helped Daniels seek investors for the rest.
“I really wanted all African-American investors. And that’s the way I started out with this. I was able to get [former NBA player] Michael Finley, Earl Stafford, Harry Martin. What you have to understand – the 41 producers – there’s groups. You go outside the boundaries of the United States. You find Canadian investors. There are people who build companies around raising money for movies. And that’s where you get 41 investors. But the people I’m naming, including myself, are individual investors.”
The Weinstein Company put up another $30 million to market and distribute the film, a welcome assist from a company known to champion and with a very successful track record of supporting Oscar-winning films. “It’s really great that [Harvey Weinstein] picked up distribution.
“That’s where Black movies suffer, because they can’t get distribution. So we want to do $60 million more and we’re on our way.” Johnson says that she is proud of her involvement in the film. She felt moved to participate because of the film’s themes of racial struggle and also it’s depiction of an ordinary Black family living their lives despite the harsh discrimination and obstacles they faced every day.
“This is one of the greatest unsung heroes and this is a story that needed to be told. Within the African-American culture, we’ve got a lot of people out there like this who have great stories. If there is a compelling script that can be put together into a screenplay, we can do this. This is not only a great story but it’s an inspiring story, it’s an educational story. I decided I was going to make it my mission to get this film made.”