As always, money talks in Hollywood. The $26 million earned by the 1990 hit comedy House Party has joined the $45 million earned by Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing to help create a tidal wave of at least 19 black-themed projects (mostly low-budget, some will see only regional openings) set for release before year’s end.
”What we have developing is a new black cinema,” critic Roger Ebert said at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, where Universal launched Lee’s Jungle Fever to wide acclaim. ”Not one director, one film, not an exception like Spike Lee, but a whole new wave.”
Lee himself added, ”It’s a better feeling not being alone. I never wanted to be the only black filmmaker making films. There’s room for a lot more of us. The best help I’ve been for anybody is making the best films I could that made money, so the doors cracked open a bit.”
Now that these doors are open, question is how to get moviegoers — black and white — to walk in. While films like Lee’s interracial romance drama Jungle Fever and 23-year-old John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood promise the fresh insights and points of view that please jaded critics, they pose a serious marketing challenge for Hollywood studios and independent distributors.
Predictably, the studios tend to hope black pictures will ”cross over” to the white mass audience. Which means that marketing a film directly to black audiences ”is sometimes diluted in the interest of crossing over,” says Topper Carew, director of New Line Cinema’s upcoming Talkin’ Dirty After Dark. ”But the first thing you do is get the core audience, then cross over.”
Often the tried-and-true avenues for reaching the mainstream audience — network TV buys, for example — don’t work as well when seeking the black moviegoer. ”Warner Bros.’ New Jack City is a great example of a successful marketing campaign,” says Warrington Hudlin, producer of House Party and president of the Black Filmmakers Foundation. ”The marketers used heavy radio, which makes the most sense with black teens, given the poor literacy rate in our urban communities. The massive poster campaign was crucial — there were movie posters of New Jack City at every bus stop and subway station in New York, and billboards were all over the streets of other cities. These kinds of things are important to blacks, who don’t depend on critics’ reviews when making their moviegoing decisions.”
But it seems far easier to sell a commercial action or comedy genre with rap soundtrack tie-ins than it is to build word-of-mouth for an adult drama. Spike Lee’s films are now a marketable commodity, with or without reviews. Other dramas, such as independent Miramax Films’ ’50s-gangster epic, A Rage in Harlem (which received mixed reviews), have been struggling to reach a wider audience. Identifying a film as a black drama, says Russell Schwartz, executive vice president of Miramax, creates even ”more fickleness in audiences” than generic white drama. ”Maybe the answer is to make sure there is a steady diet of black films geared to a mass audience,” he says. ”Maybe it just takes time.”
Schwartz echoes the experiences of many marketers and filmmakers who say that once white moviegoers attend a movie about blacks, they find they like what they have seen. Matty Rich, writer-producer-director of Straight Out of Brooklyn, feels it’s high time white audiences learn to stretch. ”If there are words that they don’t understand, or situations that might seem a little foreign, they can take a few seconds to try and grasp them. Blacks have spent decades doing that with mainstream films, haven’t we?”