They may be sporting X's on their baseball caps and T-shirts but young African-Americans, expected to form the core audience for the movie "Malcolm X," are not flocking to see the epic biography of their hero.
Research conducted for Warner Bros., the film's distributor, shows that three-quarters of the audience for the heavily publicized Spike Lee film about the slain black nationalist leader is 25 or older. After a strong opening, attendance for the $34-million film has been dropping rapidly, perhaps because of the holiday competition. The picture has grossed $38 million in five weeks.
It may be the 3-hour, 20-minute length of "Malcolm X" and/or its weighty subject matter that are keeping young black audiences away. "Are they afraid they're going to get a history lesson?" mused Marvin Worth, the film's producer. Worth also notes that "it's not a date picture." Based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the film traces his evolution from street hustler to Muslim minister and contains few scenes of violence or sex.
The film's length, which also affects box-office grosses by eliminating at least one show a day, is considered a problem for all age groups. But what seems especially puzzling is that the poor reception from young audiences comes at a time when there is virtually no competition for the teen-age market, with the exception of "Bram Stoker's Dracula." The Christmas season's only action picture, "Trespass," starring Ice-T and Ice Cube, doesn't open until Friday.
Warners spokesman Robert Friedman declined to disclose how the studio plans to court young filmgoers. Television advertising for "Malcolm X" was suspended about a week after the picture's Nov. 18 opening--and was not resumed until last Sunday night--on the theory that this type of promotion does not pay off while many filmgoers are doing their Christmas shopping.
But in addition to the blizzard of free publicity that greeted the film's opening, a four-minute video for "Revolution," a song from the film's soundtrack by the rap group Arrested Development, featuring scenes from the movie, has had wide distribution on MTV and other music video outlets. "It's pretty much a hit video," said Ken Baumstein, senior vice president of EMI Records Group. "It is appealing to a young audience but that probably has more to do with Arrested Development than the movie 'Malcolm X.' " The single and the soundtrack album, however, have not been big sellers on the Billboard charts.
From the outset, Warner Bros. was concerned about whether "Malcolm X," despite generally positive reviews, would have so-called crossover appeal to whites as well as blacks. Friedman contends that the film is "getting a good solid mix" and an "exceptional" response from both blacks and whites interviewed by exit pollsters.
But a spokesman for Pacific Theaters, a California chain with 300 screens, said by a rough estimate, blacks have been making up between 70% and 80% of the audience at most locations. "Needless to say, when you make a picture about a certain ethnic group, you're going to have more people from that group," the spokesman said.
A. D. Murphy, box-office analyst for Daily Variety, said the film's performance has been "remarkable" considering that it does not, in his view, have mass appeal. "This is not a broad-based film; nor is it necessarily 'holiday' in ambience," he said. "I think $38 million is twice what it might have done."
He noted that "JFK," last year's three-hour hit film from Warner Bros., had "broader audience potential."
So far the record holder--in terms of gross receipts--for a film about African-Americans directed by a black is John Singleton's 1991 "Boyz N the Hood," which took in $53 million, according to industry figures.
Lee's appetite for controversy may have turned off some filmgoers, Murphy said. "I think a lot of people are saying to themselves, 'Oh, Spike Lee--forget it.' A filmmaker shouldn't be holding press conferences after the film opens."
At Warner Bros., studio officials say they are confident that business will pick up after the holidays end, especially once the awards season gets into high gear. "We're hopeful that we're going to get a large number of nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy," said Friedman.
But the awards meted out thus far have also been disappointing, with the lone first-place honor going to Denzel Washington, who was voted best actor for his portrayal of Malcolm by the New York Film Critics Circle.