Fade To Black

Black filmmakers make the most profitable movies, but still fight for dollars and respect

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At first glance, the summer of 2000 could easily be remembered as a sizzling period for the “black” Hollywood blockbuster film. Temperatures reached record highs and moviegoers flocked to multiplexes to see films directed by or starring African Americans. Heading the list were Keenen Ivory Wayans’ Scary Movie; The Nutty Professor II, starring Eddie Murphy; and Big Momma’s House, with Martin Lawrence. Each film cleared the $100 million mark in domestic gross revenues. And director John Singleton’s update of the classic, Shaft, garnered more than $70 million. While not a blockbuster, Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy laughed past $30 million domestically and earned the director his highest opening weekend box office ever.

But even with this success, black film directors still have to fight for big budgets.

Budgets for some mainstream studio fare have reached the $100 million mark, with the average film costing around $50 million, while movies targeted to blacks usually have budgets averaging in the $13 million range. Typically made with no big-name stars, yet armed with marketable sound tracks, “black” films have proven to be moneymakers for studios.

Based on history, it appears the rule is to keep “black” film budgets low and to look to peak domestic gross revenues of between $25 million and $40 million.

Look at House Party, which hit the big screen in 1990. It cost $2.5 million to make and grossed about $25 million domestically. Friday cost about $3.5 million and made about $27 million domestically.

Conversely, big studio event films such as Mission: Impossible 2 cost $100 million and grossed more than $200 million domestically. The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, however, cost Universal Pictures $76 million but was a major disappointment, grossing only $26 million.

Unquestionably, Wayans’ triumph as the highest-grossing black director of all time with Scary Movie (the film has grossed more than $150 million domestically to date)-surpassing Sidney Poitier’s Stir Crazy (1980), which grossed $101.1 million-is worthy of industry recognition. It demonstrates a black director’s ability to succeed in the mainstream. Scary Movie is the highest-grossing film in Miramax’s history, and Wayans has already agreed to do the sequel.

Scary Movie was marketed to the mainstream as a horror movie spoof, and the producers don’t consider it a “black” movie. But the black director still only received a “black” film’s budget. Says Jeff Friday, the executive producer and producer of the Acapulco Black Film Festival and president of UniWorld Films, “Scary Movie was never intended to be positioned as a black movie. It was a multiracial teen comedy and satire of mainstream horror flicks.” The movie spoofs Miramax’s Scream franchise films, which are targeted to teenagers of all ethnic groups.

Paramount saw Shaft’s broad market appeal, a perspective that ultimately allowed Singleton to make the movie he wanted to make. “MGM did not want to spend $25 million on the film. They only saw it as a niche film,” he says. Singleton took it to Paramount, and they spent $46 million on it. In addition, Shaft had an historical

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