Nelson Bennett's theater complex in predominantly black Baldwin Hills did something unusual last weekend.
For the first time in its seven-year history, the first-run movie house opened a black-oriented, big-studio picture on each of its three screens. And red-hot ticket sales for all three films--Disney's "Shoot to Kill," Columbia's "School Daze," and Lorimar's "Action Jackson"--smashed the house record.
Bennett hopes for more of the same this weekend. "This is a milestone," said the 37-year-old co-owner of the Baldwin Hills Entertainment Complex--which claims, remarkably, to be the only black-owned, first-run theater in the United States.
All three films did fairly well nationally last weekend also, though it still isn't clear that any of them will pick up enough steam to become a major hit with white and black audiences alike.
"Shoot to Kill," co-starring Sidney Poitier and Tom Berenger in a buddy-type cop story, took in about $5 million at the national box office, placing second to front-running "Good Morning, Vietnam."
Close behind, "Action Jackson," starring Carl Weathers in another cop yarn, took in about $4.7 million. "School Daze," a kind of comic morality play directed by Spike Lee and starring an all-black cast, took in $1.5 million. That performance was fairly strong, given the film's limited initial release on just 223 screens.
Some exhibitors expressed doubt that any of the films would break out and become across-the-board hits.
"There's a huge ethnic market out there. If the film delivers enough quality, the opportunities for a big box office are limitless. . . . (But) I'm not sure these are the films (to do it)," said one major exhibitor who declined to be identified.
Another big theater owner predicted that "Action Jackson" would drop off quickly, and added that so far " 'School Daze,' is working just as a black film. It's not doing well in the non-black areas at all. White areas are spotty at best."
A Lorimar spokesman didn't return calls seeking comment regarding "Action Jackson."
A Columbia spokesman said "School Daze" is "performing very well across the country. But it's obviously performing better in predominantly black markets."
A Disney spokesman said "Shoot to Kill" was geared to appeal to all audiences. "It's really a satisfying action thriller," the spokesman said.
In any case, it is virtually unheard of for major Hollywood companies--often accused of giving black stars short shrift--to offer three films featuring black talent during a key long holiday weekend.
Occasionally, of course, black performers are pure box-office gold. Eddie Murphy's concert film "Raw," for instance, did big business for Paramount over Christmas--even if Bill Cosby's "Leonard Part 6" was a letdown for Columbia. But aside from a run of "salt-and-pepper," white-and-black buddy films like "Lethal Weapon" and "48 HRS.," black films really haven't existed as a genre since the early '70s, when superheroes like Shaft and Superfly held sway at the box office.
As an exhibitor, Bennett was encouraged to find that the three current films played to distinctly different audiences at the 1,000-seat Baldwin, where previous favorites included "The Color Purple," "Beverly Hills Cop II" and "The Untouchables."
As Sidney Poitier's first effort after a long screen absence, "Shoot to Kill" drew older viewers, while "School Daze" grabbed a fairly sophisticated college crowd, Bennett said. "Action," meanwhile, pulled in the kids--adding up to evening sellouts in all three auditoriums and a total box-office take surpassing that set in 1985, when "The Color Purple" opened.
To Bennett, the lesson is fairly simple. Movie-starved black audiences can be a significant force at the box office when companies bother to produce something they like, even if blacks alone generally can't create a hit without a big white turnout.
"The race hasn't gone away," the exhibitor said. "We like movies too. It's great to have something after years of neglect."
Connie Benesch contributed to this story.