Pic campaigns zero in on women and churches to reach black auds

For years, Hollywood has tried to tap the African-American audience. But the studios have often struggled to market effectively to a demographic that spans broad ranges of age, social and economic classes, and regional taste.

“You can’t just put it out there and believe they will come,” says Lionsgate production prexy Mike Paseornek, who’s exec produced a number of films targeted at the black aud of late, including Tyler Perry’s surprise hit “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” which is up for four Image Awards this year, including best pic. “Why should urban films be any different than any other film? You have to figure out what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to.”

Last year featured several pics targeted at African-Americans that missed their mark. Paramount’s remake of “The Honeymooners,” featuring Cedric the Entertainer, took in just over $12 million, for example, while the studio’s biopic “Get Rich or Die Tryin’ ” failed to match the record sales of its rap-star subject, 50 Cent.

But otherwise, 2005 was a solid year for film marketers who thoughtfully reached out to African-American movie-watchers with not-so-formulaic messages.

Sony’s “Hitch,” which featured broadly appealing “four-quadrant” star Will Smith, had the best opening ever for a romantic comedy, taking in more than $43 million out of the gate. “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” shocked industry watchers when it bowed at No. 1 at the box office with $22.7 million. And Paramount’s hoops-themed “Coach Carter,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, did solid domestic business, taking in more than $67 million in its full run.

According to Reuben Cannon, one of “Diary’s” producers, Lionsgate’s success with the film can be tied to its faith in Perry, the producer-writer-star of “Mad Black Woman, as well as upcoming sequel “Madea’s Family Reunion.”

“Perry has been on the road for seven years, and he’s so in touch with his audience — they love him, and he loves them,” Cannon says. “And besides the entertainment value, there are also the shared family values that this audience rarely gets to see.”

Lionsgate, for its part, listened closely to Perry, who is a well-established African-American playwright. “Lionsgate was really smart in embracing him as a partner, instead of believing they knew better,” concurs William Morris agent Charles King, who reps Perry.

Building on Perry’s own email blasts, name recognition and huge following in the religious community, Lionsgate crafted ads and trailers that “hit the good-feeling and family values messages,” Paseornek says. The company also advertised heavily on gospel radio stations, catering to the faith-based African-American population.

Paseornek says the ads also explicitly targeted African-American women. “Everyone talks about urban films tapping an underserved market,” he says, “but we were getting more specific, zeroing in on the family and the woman, who have a strong role in the family. If you look at films that have worked over the years, the women-centered movies are particularly successful,” he adds, citing “Waiting to Exhale.”

On a slightly smaller scale, Magnolia Pictures’ 2004 release of “Woman, Thou Art Loosed,” winner of the best independent film trophy at last year’s Image Awards, also targeted the African-American religious community. With the help of Bishop TD Jakes, who wrote the film, Magnolia was able to transform “Loosed” into the company’s top grosser to date, earning more than $6 million in domestic B.O.

“Bishop TD Jakes is enormous,” says Magnolia prexy Eamonn Bowles. “We relied on his organization, and we did a lot of work with pastors, and did screenings at these megachurches to get their approval and endorsement.”

“If you can mobilize that church community,” Cannon adds, “it can be a tremendous boost of awareness, and it becomes a must-see.”

For Lionsgate’s successful release of multiple Image Award nominee “Crash,” the distributor also invited black religious leaders to see the film, as well other key community figures, such as members of the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus. “Whenever we’re trying to reach any demographic, we try to screen as aggressively as possible for opinionmakers,” says Lionsgate Theatrical Films prexy Tom Ortenberg. In one marketing coup, Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire show to “Crash” in the early stages of the film’s Academy campaign.

“We worked very hard to achieve those things,” says Ortenberg. “Whether it was the theatrical or awards campaign, the best spokesperson for ‘Crash’ was ‘Crash.'”

That was not the case, unfortunately, for Craig Brewer’s “Hustle & Flow.” Costing $3 million to make, grossing more than $22 million theatricaly and garnering five Image noms, including best pic, industry expectations for the film were astronomically high. The pic could have been better served by a slower-building release outside of the crowded summer season, says King, who reps Brewer and the film’s rising star, Terrence Howard.

Some industry watchers say “Hustle & Flow” was also perceived as just another gangster film, which like “Get Rich or Die Tryin'” and DMX’s “Never Die Alone,” have failed to connect with auds in recent years. “The studios think, ‘How do we use this rapper this week?'” says Cannon, “but there are other stars in the community.”

“I think the smart people are analyzing the numbers and realizing that there are successful films to be made that are reflective of the diverse spectrum of black life,” King adds.

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