Fox Searchlight tweaks its urban efforts


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EXCLUSIVE: Much as Lionsgate makes the urban-comedy business look easy (with the help of one Tyler Perry), the reality is it’s actually pretty difficult.

The latest company to learn the lesson, and prove the point, is Fox Searchlight. The specialty division is -- at least for the moment, according to sources -- pulling back from its foray into black-themed films after a pair of middling results. Most notably, the company has decided to put into turnaround ‘Baggage Claim,’ a story of a thirtysomething flight attendant’s search for Mr. Right that was to star Taraji P. Henson.


‘Baggage Claim’ was based on the novel from, had the imprimatur of, and was to be written and directed by one David E. Talbert, known as the original Tyler Perry (like Perry -- in fact, before Perry -- he worked the so-called Chitlin’ Circuit of black-oriented theaters in the South, and also wrote and directed the 2008 film hit ‘First Sunday’). ‘Baggage Claim’ was thought to hold plenty of promise, with a built-in fan base among a core black audience as well a compelling premise that could cross over to a wider audience.

But sources say that a series of underperformers has given Searchlight pause. Most recently, the company’s Queen Latifah vehicle ‘Just Wright’ and Forest Whitaker marital comedy ‘Our Family Wedding’ drew only sparse audiences, each grossing only about $20 million at the domestic box office this spring. So Zola Mashariki, the Searchlight executive who had specialized in films in that vein, will now shift her orientation to other types of projects, according to sources.

Fox Searchlight executives acknowledged the difficulties but contested the notion that it had made any kind of strategic shift. ‘I think there’s no question the market is more challenging,’ Searchlight co-president Steve Gilula said in an interview. ‘That being said, we’ve had great success with a number of movies in this category. There’s no fundamental strategic shift and we’re not walking away from black-oriented films.’

Gilula said that the company has always had ‘an ebb and flow’ of movies in the category and in fact was in the process of closing deals for several new projects. He noted that ‘Baggage Claim’ was being put in turnaround ‘for practical reasons’ -- namely, producers were interested in shooting this summer and Searchlight already had a number of films in production. And he said that Mashariki has always held responsibilities that went beyond urban films.

One observer we spoke to pointed out that, while the urban market remains under-served by conventional Hollywood, it’s not an audience that’s easily captured, especially since, as the conventional wisdom has it, black audiences also come out to see many big-budget Hollywood tentpoles. Searchlight has indeed had success with black-themed films, with such films as ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ which earned about $40 million on an estimated budget of about $10 million.

But other Searchlight films in in the general category, including ‘Notorious’ ($37 million, on an estimated production budget of more than half that) and the Chris Rock remake ‘I Think I Love My Wife’ ($13 million domestic), performed middlingly. And without international box office to carry the slack (urban movies are generally seen as poor travelers) it can be hard for executives to make the case for black-oriented movies.


Of course, the urban market hasn’t been that huge a focus for Searchlight. The company has several more prominent niches, particularly in the realm of upscale drama (upcoming movies include Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants,’ the Carey Mulligan vehicle ‘Never Let You Go’ and Danny Boyle’s mountain-climbing ‘127 Hours’), upscale comedies (Miguel Arteta’s ‘Cedar Rapids’) and upscale genre hybrids (Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’).

It also wouldn’t be the only one to make a subtle shift. Even Screen Gems, which hasn’t done badly in the category recently (even with tepidly received movies like ‘Death at a Funeral’) seems to be concentrating its non-genre efforts elsewhere, with love stories like ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ and the Las Vegas-set ‘Burlesque.’
Lionsgate continues to be the dominant player in the category -- in the last 15 months, the studio had three movies that have grossed at least $50 million domestically. Of course, all three films have a certain creator at the controls -- Tyler Perry. Without him, it can be a tough course to navigate.

--Steven Zeitchik

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