By Christian Blauvelt
January 23, 2012 at 10:41 PM EST
Jiri Hanzl
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George Lucas must have the deepest pockets of any independent filmmaker on the planet. He self-financed Red Tails — the epic passion project about the Tuskegee Airmen he’s been fighting to bring to the big screen for 23 years — with close to $100 million of his personal fortune. Today he’s got to be smiling, though, because it looks like his investment has a shot at paying off.

It’ll be an uphill battle, but Red Tails soared in its opening weekend with $19.1 million, well beyond what distributor 20th Century Fox anticipated. That beats the openings of previous aerial adventure films like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ($15.6 million), Stealth ($13.3 million), and Flyboys ($6 million). Next week it’ll have to compete against Liam Neeson battling wolves in The Grey, but Red Tails’ 43% Friday-to-Saturday jump, robust $7,604 per-screen average, and solid “A” CinemaScore, despite mixed critical reviews, bodes well for its future financial prospects. If it performs anything like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which also opened with a little over $19 million during the extended Christmas weekend, Lucas might just break even. With Black History Month just around the corner, continued interest in the story of the first African-American fighter pilot squad is very likely.

This success is hard won for Lucas and Red Tails director Anthony Hemingway. After the African-American-driven World War II film Miracle at St. Anna tanked at the box office with a cumulative $7.9 million domestic gross (and a $45 million production budget) in 2008, Hollywood became especially wary of financing expensive war movies built around largely unknown black actors. Even with Lucas’ support, no studio was willing to finance Red Tails. So he ponied up the $58 million production budget and $35 million distribution costs (plus an additional amount for marketing) himself.

“The thing is, a predominantly white story centered around the Second World War would not have the pressure on it that Miracle at St. Anna had,” Red Tails star David Oyelowo tells EW. “Or that Red Tails now has. When Miracle at St. Anna wasn’t a huge success, it became a signal to the studios that, ‘Oh, this doesn’t work.’ But if Black Hawk Down hadn’t worked, it wouldn’t have meant that Clint Eastwood’s war movies weren’t going to get made.”

If Red Tails had relied on studio financing, odds are the film would have needed a bigger marquee name attached, like Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, or Will Smith. But like he did with American Graffiti and Star Wars, Lucas opted for a younger cast built around up-and-comers like Oyelowo (The Help, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Leslie Odom (Smash), and Michael B. Jordan (Friday Night Lights), with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the only Hollywood veterans on hand. “If this had been studio financed,” Oyelowo says, “These actors would have been older because they would have needed established names. And, let’s face it, African-American actors very rarely get to be established names until they are in their 40s or beyond.”

But Red Tails’ young talent also served Lucasfilm’s target demographic for the film: teenage African-American males. R&B singer Ne-Yo and Wu-Tang rapper Method Man rounded out the cast, and, despite the 1940s setting, Top Gun-style TV commercials for the film featured dubstep music by electro-house DJ Porter Robinson. Co-writer Aaron McGruder admits that Lucas and Hemingway aimed more for popcorn movie thrills than a preachy history lesson. “We wanted to show the Airmen as heroes, not victims,” McGruder says. “What George was looking for in our script was more fun, more excitement, more energy. I just kept going back to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark for the tone we were trying to set.” Clearly, it’s a strategy that worked. Though Red Tails averaged an “A” CinemaScore, it actually scored an “A+” with the under-18 audience.

And yet the other CinemaScore demo that also gave Red Tails an A+? Audience members over 50. In fact, 66% of Red Tails’ opening gross came from people over the age of 25. Ringing endorsements from major African-American celebrities certainly helped bring in an older audience. Spike Lee, who previously criticized Lucas for the Stepin Fetchit antics of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, tweeted, “WAKE UP! We Gotta Mobilize To Show Up This Opening Weekend For RED TAILS. Ya Dig? Sho-Nuff.” Oprah Winfrey showed her approval via a heavily-promoted one-hour interview with George Lucas on OWN’s Next Chapter.

Tyler Perry urged his newsletter readers to see the movie. Perry, whose own primarily African-American-targeted films regularly open to more than $20 million,  wrote, “I think we should pull together and get behind this movie. I really do! Not just African-Americans, but all of us….George, I just want to say, thank you for having the courage to do this.” As a result, theaters in primarily African-American neighborhoods in New York City, Los Angeles, and Atlanta represented the strongest per-screen showings, by far.

But executive producer Rick McCallum is quick to note, “We didn’t make a film just for African-Americans. George’s ambition has always been for it to be something that can appeal to everybody.” Oyelowo adds, “You don’t invest $100 million of your own money to make a movie that you don’t think has broad appeal.”

Did you see Red Tails over the weekend? And if so, would you recommend it?

More from EW.com:

Box office report: ‘Underworld’ awakens the box office with $25.4 million; ‘Red Tails’ takes flight

‘Red Tails’: Rising star David Oyelowo talks George Lucas’ decades-in-the-making Tuskegee Airmen epic — EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

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