Meet The Butler’s Powerhouse Producer

Sundance Institute Leadership EventPublished on LinkedIn Influencers on August 21, 2013.

Sheila Johnson is a highly successful businesswoman, entrepreneur, producer, and philanthropist, with achievements and accolades far too numerous to list. I have the honor of serving on the Board of Trustees of The Sundance Institute with Sheila, and we share a passion for the advancement of women and girls as members of Women Moving Millions. This article will be the first in a series I will doing to profile extraordinary women leaders that I am blessed to know and work with.

You are likely to have heard of Sheila as the founder of the television network BET, owner or partner of three major sporting teams (Washington Mystics, Washington Capitals, and Washington Wizards), board member of numerous charitable organizations, and CEO of Salamander Hospitality, a company she founded in 2005, it would appear that there’s nothing Johnson doesn’t do. When I asked her this very question she simply replied, “I don’t eat meat”. That is one of the few things we don’t have in common. I love a good steak!

Dietary preferences aside, Sheila’s resume is remarkable, and this past weekend marked another milestone: producing the number one movie at the box office. In her first outing as Executive Producer of a feature film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler opened to positive reviews and nearly $25 million in ticket sales, landing at the top of a box office weekend that featured several other high profile debuts. An ensemble drama that tells the story of a White House butler serving eight presidents over thirty years of social change and upheaval, The Butler wasn’t a guaranteed hit, nor was it even expected to be by analysts, but given the star power of the cast, featuring no less than Oprah as the titular character’s wife, and producers such as Johnson backing it, you have to wonder why people ever doubted The Butler‘s prospects. I saw it over the weekend and loved it, as did many others as judged by the applause at the end of the film.

Sheila had previously produced (with others) the documentary Kicking It, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, and later became the only Executive Producer on the documentary, A Powerful Noise. The Butler is her first foray into narrative features, with the late producer, Laura Ziskin, first approaching her for involvement with the film. As Sheila says, “The script was brought to me by … Laura Ziskin. She was an incredible and talented woman. Laura and I shared the view that this story had to be told. I loved the script right away. There were elements of history and of course the human drama with the family.”

Sheila is reported to have invested over $2.5 million of her own money into the project, as well as bringing on several other investors within the African American community. “As Executive Producer, I knew I had to make an investment myself if I was going to ask others to do the same. Additionally, I had a role to help find other investors who would believe in the script and invest. Despite the countless rejections, in the end – we pulled it together and the film came to life!” Operating on a reported budget of $30 million, the film was shot in New Orleans beginning in September of 2012, and quickly attracted attention for the large cast it had assembled. “Lee [Daniels] prefers to work with actors he knows and has worked with in the past. He likes the challenge of getting the audience to re-think these actors that [the audience] has typecast in their minds. For example, you have Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan, Robin Williams cast as President Eisenhower, Mariah Carey as Hattie Pearl and of course, Oprah. The whole cast was incredible!” says Sheila. I could not agree more.

While box office success is always a goal of filmmaking, Sheila hopes that many people will see the film because of the historical importance behind it. “It takes us through eight Presidents and the turmoil and obstacles that our great nation has faced and overcome during Cecil Gaines’ tenure as The Butler in the White House. Then there’s the human element of Cecil Gaines and his family. Everyone can learn and perhaps have experienced what they went through as a family.” With its impressive debut and whispers of Oscar, it would appear that The Butler is well on its way to reaching the wide audience it deserves.

As if Sheila didn’t already have enough on her plate this summer with The Butler’s debut, she is also overseeing the Grand Opening of her new resort in Middleburg VA, the Salamander Resort and Spa. Opening at noon on August 29, 2013, the Salamander Resort and Spa sits on 340 acres in the heart of Virginia’s horse and wine country. “From the moment I stepped foot on the property, I fell in love with it and envisioned creating an iconic retreat – one where guests would enjoy exceptional service. As the resort approaches completion, I am extraordinarily proud of what we have created. It will serve several purposes to many, including a gathering point for the community, a political retreat for Washington, D.C., and an exciting new destination for travelers from all over the world.” The Salamander Resort’s opening has drawn attention from both Forbes and USA Today as one of the most anticipated hotel openings of 2013, and with three major airports within 90 minutes of the property, the resort appears poised for success.

Film, television, hospitality, philanthropy; Sheila Johnson really can do it all. While her achievements are extraordinary, it is her commitment to her community and the example she sets as a role model that truly sets Johnson apart and makes her a leader in today’s world. One can be forgiven for thinking that after a summer overseeing two major project launches, Sheila would be entitled to some well deserved time off, but I have a feeling that she will not rest on her laurels for long. And I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.

Jacki Zehner with the incredible help of Laura Moore.

Photo: Andrew H. Walker/WireImage via Getty Images

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