Image-in that: B.O. gets drawn into the black

Success dispels notion that racial themes, mixed casts can't sell

Films with black stars, directors, writers, and producers made a lot of noise at the box office in 2000. Four films with predominantly black talent in front of or behind the camera — “Scary Movie,” “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” “Remember the Titans” and “Big Momma’s House” — all cleared the $100 million hurdle.

Together with a handful of other success stories from last year such as “The Original Kings of Comedy” “Shaft” and “Men of Honor,” they have done much to dispel the traditional notion that films with racial subject matter or integrated casts can’t sell tickets. And the studios finally seem to be listening.

“I don’t know about what trends are or what’s going on, but there’s simply a lot of enormously talented African-Americans in our business and they’re doing terrific work,” says “Titans” co-producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

“It’s very noteworthy,” says “Titans” frosh screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard. “It’s never happened.”In the past, the occasional success of a “Soul Food” or “Waiting to Exhale” or “Blade” merely raised eyebrows. But last year’s enormously profitable slate of black pics seems to indicate a snowball effect. A combination of entertaining stories with broad appeal, canny marketing, mixed-race casts and global star talent has pushed these films into the mainstream must-see arena.

“Hip-hop music, even in its most generic form, is pervasive globally,” says Imagine Entertainment co-prexy Brian Grazer, who exec produced the “Nutty” movies. “It has become a bridge for all consumers of entertainment to enter more comfortably into a world that they hadn’t been in. So the movies that have had African-American stars and artists involved are now getting a fairer and better opportunity to be viewed.”

Many of the films were able to double their audience by bringing in both white and black viewers.

“Whereas I think the African-American public goes to see everything, from ‘Kentucky Fried Movie’ to ‘Hannibal,’ I don’t think when it comes to black subject matter that everybody goes to see it,” says “Shaft” and “Higher Learning” producer Paul Hall.

Hall says a studio’s committed marketing campaign, such as Paramount’s advertising juggernaut for “Shaft,” is a key to broad success. “Those (successes from 2000) are pictures that weren’t smaller, niche pictures. They weren’t geared toward the African-American marketplace at all.”

“I think ‘Scary Movie’ was a breakthrough,” says scribe Howard, “because it’s really integrated and it crossed over, just like ‘Titans,’ ‘Men of Honor,’ and ‘Save the Last Dance’ crossed over. All the integrated stuff is doing really good business.”

As with most things in Hollywood, change follows the simple, unavoidable reality of economics.

When a film like “Titans,” with its racially mixed cast and creative team, makes $113 million, it opens the door for future black writers and producers to get projects considered. With the massive coin these black films are providing, the follow-the-money golden rule of the industry is the only incentive studios need.

“Knowing Hollywood,” says Bruckheimer, “they always follow the dollars.”

Hall is more tentatively encouraged.

“I hope it’s a trend,” he says. “The success of those pictures in the summer — ‘Shaft,’ ‘Kings of Comedy,’ ‘Big Momma’s House’ — will hopefully (cause) the execs and studios in town and the people that are able to make the decisions to see it is a lucrative endeavor.”

Apparently, they do. Over the next year, a slew of projects with black casts and creators will bow at theaters, with budgets increasing as the payoffs have become less risky. “Dr. Dolittle 2,” “The Brothers,” “Scary Movie 2,” “Kingdom Come,” “Baby Boy,” “Bones,” “Blade 2” and “Black Knight” are on the way.

“It’s easier in that it’s easier for the studio to say Keenan (Ivory Wayans), John (Singleton), and George (Tillman Jr.) have made substantial box office so, of course, let’s do a sequel to ‘Shaft.’ Let’s do ‘Scary Movie 2,'” says Hall.

While films with all-black casts and black sensibilities largely remain marginalized and saddled with low budgets, obvious inroads have been paved to the formerly resistant studio system and multiracial audiences.

“I look at it as an evolution,” says Howard. “Black writers and directors and actors have been out here banging on the door so long, there’s a point at which it evolves.”

The unpredictable calculus that has brought these films success inspires more questions than concrete answers. What seems clear, however, is that black actors, writers, directors and producers are increasingly in a better position to have their creative voices heard and their growing box office power recognized.

Of course, the most ancient and proven path to success still applies.

“The box office depends on entertainment,” says Bruckheimer. “If you entertain people they’re going to show up and spend their money. It doesn’t matter what color they are.”

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