Studio finds success with African American films

When Screen Gems released “This Christmas,” aimed at a black audience, the reviews were tepid.

“The critics talked about how (the movie) had this ‘ridiculous dance sequence,’ ” says Screen Gems topper Clint Culpepper. “What they don’t know — because the movie wasn’t made for them — is that this thing called a ‘Soul Train’ line is such a tradition in African-American homes.”

He has a point: The $13 million movie went on to quietly rake in $49.1 million at the box office.

Screen Gems, which originally made its name with horror and sci fi pics, and other studio labels are finding success with movies tailored to black audiences. But they are doing so by going against the conventional wisdom of the marketplace, and mistaken assumptions of what black viewers want.

In development at Screen Gems, for instance, are a black musical based on Jane Austen’s “Emma” and a remake of “The Big Chill” with a black cast.

Those two titles alone diverge from the spate of urban action pics and comedies, especially those starring Tyler Perry, that have done well with black audiences.

In fact, Screen Gems has carved out a niche in producing movies aimed at black moviegoers, finding solid earners if the pictures are made at the right budget level. They’ve had success with pics like “Stomp the Yard” and “Breaking All the Rules” — movies often overlooked by major studio divisions — that run in the $4 million-$40 million budget range. “First Sunday,” a comedy caper starring Ice Cube, opened on Jan. 11 and has collected $36.8 million to date.

Lionsgate has also concentrated on the aud, with Perry’s films continuing to perform strongly.

Other studios court black audiences, although not as frequently. U released the family comedy “Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins,” starring Martin Lawrence, this weekend, and Disney will bow “College Road Trip” next month.

Much rarer are black dramas like “This Christmas.” Few movies offer authentic depictions of home life that don’t involve crime or gangs — a common complaint among black filmmakers trying to get their projects off the ground.

“They are just normal stories, and (studios) aren’t making them. I give (black audiences) stories they want to see. I seem to have been pretty lucky with it,” Culpepper says.

There’s also an assumption that black films don’t travel well overseas: “First Sunday” and “This Christmas” have made a combined $698,381 to date from foreign territories. But that won’t sour Screen Gems on films for black auds. Instead, the label’s business model offsets negligible foreign receipts by keeping costs down, particularly marketing spending. In part, they rely on word-of-mouth or “grassroots” promotions as they did with the $4 million-budgeted “The Gospel,” which grossed $15.8 million. The campaign borrowed a page from “The Passion of the Christ” and targeted black churches to drum up interest in the film.

“We have to be a lot more innovative,” says Screen Gems marketing topper Marc Weinstock. “We don’t have the budgets that a normal movie going out on 2,000-plus screens does.”

Also on Screen Gems’ slate is “Not Easily Broken,” starring Morris Chestnut and based on the book by T.D. Jakes, as well as “Lake View Terrace,” which centers on an interracial couple harassed by their next-door neighbor, a tightly wound black LAPD officer.

Studios have a history of “discovering” the black audience, ramping up their development slates, then scaling back. The blaxploitation pics of the 1970s spawned a wave of like product. “New Jack City” in the 1990s prompted a wave of crime thrillers.

By contrast, movies like “Waiting to Exhale” and “Soul Food” — dramas that performed well at the box office — have failed to produce waves of similar projects.

“There is a lack of understanding in terms of the people who are in decision-making positions who decide what should go into development,” says William Morris’ Charles King, who represents Perry, among others. “Seventy-five percent of movies that are targeted at a black demographic make money. That’s significantly higher than movies that are made outside of that demo. Those movies are also made on much smaller budgets, so even if they aren’t that profitable, the loss isn’t that big.”

That’s why Culpepper earns praise for being one of the few executives in town, along with Lionsgate’s Jon Feltheimer, consistently making films aimed at blacks.

“Most of the people making decisions don’t understand black culture,” director John Singleton says. “They didn’t grow up with hip-hop. There are a group of studio executives who do get it — there are one or two at each studio. Clint is one of those executives.”

Perhaps Culpepper’s Sony bosses — chair-CEO Michael Lynton and co-chair Amy Pascal — deserve credit for bringing black-targeted films to the bigscreen, because the Screen Gems topper enjoys the kind of freedom few executives have. Culpepper dubs Lynton and Pascal “the best parents in the world,” who have never said no to a project or budget.

“Try saying no to Clint. It’s impossible,” Pascal says.

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