Box-office hits with black casts get Hollywood’s attention
Filmmaker Malcolm D. Lee (the new sequel “The Best Man Holiday”) says the era he refers to as “a black-movie desert” is over, thanks to the recent success of African-American-driven ensemble pictures such as “Think Like a Man.”
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
It took 14 years to come to fruition, but “The Best Man Holiday,” writer-director Malcolm D. Lee’s sequel to his 1999 hit “The Best Man,” opened Nov. 15. Lee told me the other day that Universal executives were “hesitant” initially about the sequel, which takes Taye Diggs, Regina Hall and company in a more dramatic direction than the first film.
“Too depressing,” Lee heard from the money. Too much of a “departure.”
So Lee and his actors did what they do in theater all the time but rarely in the movies: They conducted a table read of the script to convince the money to back the movie. The money came away convinced. Says Lee, “I remember one of the executives saying: ‘Listening to Terrence Howard deliver dialogue live, out loud, can really turn people around.’ ”
Would this film, a follow-up to a proven, tightly budgeted hit, have gotten serious greenlight consideration a few years ago, in the years (roughly 2008-2011 in Lee’s estimation) the director refers to as “a black-movie desert”?
In recent years, he says, “I’ve had many, many people declare that black movies are dead. Except for Tyler Perry movies.” Now, he says, “we’re seeing a gaggle of ’em.”
Numbers never tell an entire story. But check this accounting, according to Box Office Mojo (boxofficemojo.com), of a random sample of African-American-driven ensemble pictures spanning the first “Best Man” to the recent “Think Like a Man.”
• “The Best Man” cost about $9 million to make. It grossed nearly $35 million.
• “Barbershop” cost $12 million. It grossed $77 million.
• “Jumping the Broom” cost $6.6 million and grossed $37 million.
• “Think Like a Man” — the sequel arrives next year — cost $12 million and grossed $96 million.
In Hollywood, success breeds encouragement, at least until the underperformers and disappointments and belly flops (“Just Wright,” “Soul Men,” “Miracle at St. Anna”) arrive, and suddenly the greenlights turn red.
“You can’t just put African-American faces in a film and expect people to come,” says producer Will Packer, who has four films due for 2014 release: “Ride Along” with Ice Cube, Kevin Hart and Tika Sumpter; “About Last Night” with Hart, Joy Bryant, Regina Hall and Paula Patton; “Think Like a Man Too”; and “No Good Deed.”
There was a time, Packer says, “when there was such a dearth, audiences just ate it up, whatever ‘it’ was, whatever the quality.” Now it’s different. He’s looking at a hearteningly full slate, but he knows he’s stating the obvious when he says the film business “is fueled by tent poles and grand slams, not singles and doubles. ... Tent poles want to be all things to all people. That’s not currently the business I’m in. And America is such a diverse marketplace, you can’t effectively run a full-service Hollywood studio right now without having content that appeals to that diversity.”
Los Angeles Times film reporter Steve Zeitchik put it to me this way: “The tent pole mindset, in general among many Hollywood executives, has caused the middle ground to erode. And there’s a perception, often incorrect, among some executives that a film aimed at a specific audience can’t break out in a wider way.”
But look at the numbers for “Think Like a Man.” Consider the results for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” which cost around $30 million to make and has grossed around $140 million. The audience is there, and the audience, really, is plural, though in the subgenre of African-American ensemble projects, both hits and misses are analyzed unduly, because there aren’t enough of them.
For Packer, the question is this: “Is there room for all of us to grow? And is there a ceiling? I need my films to work well in the domestic theatrical arena. That’s the bottom line. Studios will often ‘zero out’ the foreign distribution on these movies.” Until an exception rewrites the rules, the rule of thumb in Hollywood is this: Black movies do not travel.
“If enough of these films coming out this year and next perform well, you’ll see more,” Packer says. He adds: “It’s a tough business economically right now. It’s tough to get any movie made.”
And yet for now, at least for a while, we’re out of the black movie desert. “I think we’re past the period when people would say, ‘These movies don’t work anymore. They’re not needed,’ ” Lee said.