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Cube squares away urban brand strategy

As the gross of MGM’s “Barbershop” heads toward stellar heights for an urban-themed film, Ice Cube’s currency is growing.

Suddenly the MGM/Hyde Park pics “The Extractors” and “The Race” are kicking into high gear, as is the DreamWorks pic “Big Ticket.”

No studio has lost money on films Cube has produced and starred in, so suitors now not only want him to drive vehicles, they want him first to get under the hood for tune-ups. Cube, it seems, is a full-fledged brand name.

AFTER TWICE TURNING DOWN “Barbershop,” Cube finally committed when he and Cube Vision partner Matt Alvarez were invited to help producers Bob Teitel and George Tillman Jr. sharpen the script and give it “Cube audience sensibility.” At a $12 mil cost and a gross heading toward $80 mil, “Barbershop” is spawning a sequel and a TV series, and it has proved Cube’s popularity with a hip-hop crowd he first connected with in “Boyz N the Hood.” He stepped up to producing-writing-directing with “Friday” ($2.8 million cost, $28 million gross), “Player’s Club” ($4.2 million cost, $26 million gross), “Next Friday” ($9.5 million cost, $57 million gross). More recently, he’s made “All About the Benjamins” ($14 million cost, $26 million gross), and “Barbershop.” Next up for the 33-year-old is the Marcus Raboy-directed “Friday After Next,” which New Line opens on Nov. 22.

He has an authenticity in the urban market and an understanding of his appeal that has allowed him to make a lucrative living in a genre considered fragile because the films do virtually no business overseas.

“I look at myself and the movies I do as a brand,” Cube said on the set of Warner Bros.’ motorcycle pic “Torque.” “My main concern is to be associated with good projects that people will not feel wasted their time and money. When the Cube Vision name is on a ‘hood film, it’s got to have my vision, my sense of humor and my way of telling a story.”

The other requirement, said Cube, is cost. “Coming from rap music, nobody in Hollywood thought I could be a real filmmaker,” he said. “What I did was make sure that the films were always ideas with low risk, and then I made sure everybody made money. Accounting is funny in Hollywood, but nobody has lost, and some of these films have been gold mines that made back the money in the first weekends.”

While Cube now makes in the $5 million range for acting jobs, he and his CAA reps usually share the risk on urban films he puts together. Cube takes a small salary against a gross stake that has grown higher than 10%. When the “Barbershop” gross and video/DVD receipts are counted — Cube films have grossed north of $40 million in that ancillary market — he should bank at least $7 million.

CUBE HAS ABSORBED a few hard lessons on the road to being a brand. The glaring flop on his actor-for-hire resume is “John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars.” Cube’s offer to help on producing and music was rebuffed, and he refused to promote the film. “I couldn’t honestly get in front of a camera and tell people they should see a movie I wouldn’t want to watch myself.” He also felt New Line could have worked harder on “All About the Benjamins,” a gross-dependent payday. “That movie cost $14 million and looked like $30 million, but the studio didn’t get behind it,” he said. “That’s the downside of keeping costs low, because sometimes I think they’d work harder if money was at stake. Studios always want to target audiences, when I’m screaming that they should treat us like ‘Meet the Parents,’ just throw the movie out there. MGM wasn’t used to doing these movies and didn’t target the genre. They put ‘Barbershop’ out like any other MGM movie and that’s why it did so well. We’ll never go anywhere overseas without studio support, and they never even come up with a foreign campaign. But I feel like I’m still fighting for the films to get put out the right way in America.”

Cube’s future plans include more movies and a rap revival, as he’ll record a Dr. Dre-produced disk. “Hip-hop was a kids game, but I can see rappers like myself someday playing Caesar’s Palace in Vegas,” he said. “My fans still listen to hip-hop, only now it’s while they’re driving three or four kids to school like I do. I’ll keep choosing movies carefully, having now learned what I can do confidently and comfortably, what I can stumble through, and what I cannot do at all. I’m not going to reveal that, because that’s like giving you the recipe to kryptonite.”

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