Tim Story calls it "director's jail."
That's where Story, 43, found himself just a few years ago, despite his successful directorial debut in 2002 with "Barbershop," which earned critics' praise and made $77 million worldwide on a modest $12-million budget. And despite the Marvel superhero franchise that followed, Story's "Fantastic Four" films in 2005 and 2007, which grossed more than $600 million worldwide.
But from those highs came the low: "Hurricane Season," the story of a basketball coach and his team one year after Hurricane Katrina. The film wasn't even released in theaters and went to DVD in 2009.
"The industry is not touching you. 'You're only as good as your last movie' — that's the saying in Hollywood," Story recalls. "All of a sudden, you're the director that made a direct-to-DVD film."
A mortgage payment and other bills kept coming. Story moved his family to a smaller house while preparing for the arrival of his third child. He took meetings on other projects, but nothing panned out.
"I wasn't looking for a movie to make another great film," he says, just one that would let him "keep the house and pay for my family to eat. I was looking for a movie for all the wrong reasons."
That finally changed with Story's 2012 release, "Think Like a Man," which earned more than $96 million worldwide. Now audiences are flocking to Story's take on the buddy-cop genre, "Ride Along." Last weekend, the film surpassed a January box-office record set by "Cloverfield" in 2008, pulling in $48.1 million for the four-day holiday period, according to studio estimates.
"We were never worried about whether the audiences would like it. We made it for them," Story said Monday, after preliminary box office numbers were in. "I think it's because it really makes you laugh. You're in a movie, and you're laughing to where you can't hear the next dialogue."
"Ride Along" follows Ben (Kevin Hart), who's ready to propose to his girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter), but needs the approval of her detective brother, James (Ice Cube). Ben goes on a 24-hour patrol around Atlanta with James to prove himself worthy.
The plot wasn't far removed from Story's relationship with his twin sister (minus the intense chase scene, the string of bullets and the mishap at a firing range).
"Even though she's married to a great guy, the question was, 'Who is he?' and 'Is he good enough for you?' " Story says. "When that movie came along, I could immediately access it from a personal standpoint."
"Ride Along" reunites Story with actors he has worked with before, including Hart and Ice Cube.
"It's the equivalent of going to that restaurant and getting the same dish," he says. "You know what you're going to get."
During filming, Story says, the best scenes didn't follow the script. It just took Ice Cube's infamous scowl and Hart's bumbling antics.
"He's the most laid-back director I've ever worked with. I wonder how he gets things done," Ice Cube says about working with Story for the first time since "Barbershop." "It's like doing a movie with a family member, in a way."
Laurence Fishburne, who voiced the Silver Surfer in the "Fantastic Four" sequel (Story calls the actor "Sir Laurence"), also is back for "Ride Along," this time to play a character best not revealed for those who haven't seen the film.
"One of the greatest moments is when you see him walk on screen and you hear the audience go, 'Oh!' It's awesome," Story says.
But the path out of director's jail hasn't been easy for Story.
"My learning curve was so big," Story says, noting he made the jump from "Barbershop" to the Queen Latifah-Jimmy Fallon comedy "Taxi," where the budget almost tripled, "and then 'Fan Four,' the budget tripled again."
Fans of the superhero genre doubted Story's ability. They said he wasn't ready. What did he know about bringing beloved comics to the big screen?
"Fantastic Four" received mixed reviews from them as well as from critics.
After "Hurricane Season," it took the earnings of "Think Like a Man" to bail him out. The romantic comedy, based on comedian-talk show host Steve Harvey's relationship book of the same name, put Story back to directing what he enjoys most: comedies.
Story hasn't had a break since. He immediately went to work on "Think Like a Man Too," slated for release June 20. Now writers have started a script for a possible "Ride Along" sequel based on the film's early box-office performance.
"Can't say 100% right now with 'Ride Along 2,' but there must be a green light bulb being screwed in somewhere," Story says.
Story finds joy in directing comedies. Take it from his laughter during final edits. But he also talks about Ron Howard's transition from actor to praised director, the man behind "Apollo 13" and "A Beautiful Mind." Then, consider Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, whose films, Story says, get better with age.
"I do see as I mature, I'm going to want to expand to maybe dramas," Story says. "I just tell people to give me good stories."
Story started out as an actor, taking roles in his eldest brother's movies filmed with an 8-millimeter camera. That camera rests in a glass case mounted in Story's office in Culver City.
There's a single phrase etched into a gold plate underneath the camera. It reads: "From small beginnings come great things."
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