Craig Seymour
August 22, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”The Original Kings of Comedy” — a movie chronicling one stop on the highest grossing comedy tour of all time — last weekend set a record of its own. Directed by Spike Lee and starring four African American comics (Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Bernie Mac, and Cedric the Entertainer), ”Kings” earned $13,813 per screen in its 847 cinemas — the best ever per screen average for an August release. That number beats the previous record holder, ”The Sixth Sense,” which took in $12,347 per screen when it opened in August 1999. Though ”Kings”’ $11.7 million weekend gross placed it second behind ”The Cell,” the comedy played on only a third as many screens as the Jennifer Lopez thriller. Such a feat is ”pretty impressive,” says Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source, the box office tracking firm. Especially, he says, for a film targeted at urban audiences.

The reign of ”Kings” continues this year’s string of hit films directed by and/ or starring African American talent: There’s ”Shaft” (a $42.5 million opening weekend), ”Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” (which has so far grossed $94 million), ”Big Momma’s House” ($114 million), and ”Scary Movie” ($145 million). That trend — coupled with the $37 million plus gross of the 1999 Kings of Comedy concert tour — might have led ”Kings” distributor, Paramount, to expect a surefire hit. But that’s not how it played out, according to one of the forces behind the movie.

Walter Latham, who produced the comedy tour and coproduced the movie as a joint venture with MTV Films, told that he had to ”fight with Paramount every day” in order to ensure that moviegoers outside of urban areas would be able to see the film. ”To reach those audiences, there needs to be a movie theater in their neighborhood where they’ll feel comfortable going to see it.” Director Lee has expressed concern that the studio was trying to ”ghetto-ize” the project. And he was particularly vocal about Paramount’s decision to open ”Kings” in four test markets — Baton Rouge, Buffalo, Milwaukee, and Richmond, Va. — more than a month before it bowed nationwide. ”I was 100 percent against it,” says Lee. ”I don’t think the film needed it.”

But Wayne Lewellen, Paramount’s President of Theatrical Distribution, says the studio chose this ”test the waters” strategy because in the past it has been burned by concert films, such as U2’s ”Rattle and Hum,” the well reviewed 1989 documentary — with a hit soundtrack, no less — that ended up grossing only $8.6 million in theaters. ”Some of the experience that we’ve had with these concert movies is that they open well on Friday but sort of disappear,” says Lewellen. ”They play basically like a concert would play.” However, ”Kings”’ run in those four cities — two of which had been bypassed by the comedy tour — defied expectations: ”The movie’s still playing in those towns,” explains Lewellen.

This coming weekend, though, will be another test: Can ”Kings” continue to rule? Van Toffler of MTV Films, one of the movie’s producers, says yes. ”The word of mouth and the exit polls on some of the test screenings are higher than ‘Titanic,”’ he said. ”So we’re hoping that the word of mouth will spread the movie out to an even wider audience.” For its part, Paramount plans to add ”Kings” in 25 additional theaters this weekend and possibly even more over Labor Day weekend. Sorta reminds us of another urban skewing film: ”’Mo’ Money.”

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