‘Waiting’ to Start a Trend? : Studios Are Anxious to See How Upcoming Black Films Will Fare


Stacey Snider, head of production at TriStar Pictures, has spent six months working on “M’Lady,” an African American version of the Pygmalion tale in which an Oakland schoolgirl is taken under the wing of a Berkeley professor. The project is about to get a green light.

The move comes amid the box-office success of “Waiting to Exhale,” another movie feeding African Americans’ hunger for upscale--or at least positive--imagery. But it’s not a clear case, she says, of cause and effect.

“This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. But there is renewed vigor in the wake of ‘Exhale,’ ” Snider says. “Though we always thought there was an audience, no one knew it was this big. We’re more confident betting on our instincts now.”


Part entertainment, part social phenomenon, 20th Century Fox’s “Waiting to Exhale” has taken in a whopping $45 million in 17 days, landing on top during the ultra-competitive Christmas weekend. The $15-million movie--a tale of four black women wrestling with life and love--slipped to fifth place this week. But industry observers point out that the picture continues to build in suburban theaters catering predominantly to whites. And African American women are still turning out in droves.

“Traditionally, we’ve considered the African American audience young and male,” said a leading independent film executive. “This movie tells us that the demographics are more diverse and interesting than that. Since Hollywood is always on the lookout for new markets, ‘Exhale’ may be the bellwether for a broader mix.”

After this “blood bath” of a holiday season, says Fox studio chief Peter Chernin, the industry is eager to jump on any “glimmer of hope.”

“The response to ‘Exhale’ shows that Hollywood has done an abysmal job of depicting African Americans, serving up primarily crime-related portrayals and all but ignoring the middle class,” he says. “But it’s a mistake to target a niche and start turning out movies in a cynical, manufactured way. It all starts with the material. The movie shows that when it’s fresh and original, African Americans will turn out.”

That in itself is a milestone, a rival studio executive maintains. “Hollywood is dominated by well-intentioned white liberals who share a mistrust that the black middle class will show up,” she says. “The industry was taken aback by the ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ response to this movie. When blacks leave the neighborhood they head for ‘Sabrina,’ not ‘Exhale,’ the reasoning goes. If the black underclass wants to see Wesley Snipes with a gun, the black middle class wants to be white.”

Simply put, says a studio chief, the black community just wants to see the same kinds of movies that the white community does.


“The real lesson of ‘Exhale’ is that African Americans are looking for mainstream films such as ‘Terms of Endearment’ . . . but with a black Debra Winger,” he says. “I look forward to the day when casting is colorblind. But until then, we’ll be seeing more middle-of-the-road films with blacks in the leads.”

This year, in fact, Universal will release a remake of 1963’s “The Nutty Professor” with Eddie Murphy in the Jerry Lewis role, while Disney is delivering Penny Marshall’s “The Preacher’s Wife,” an updated version of the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” this time starring Denzel Washington and “Exhale’s” Whitney Houston.

Other alternatives to the urban angst syndrome include Paramount’s “Kiss the Girls,” featuring Morgan Freeman as a widowed detective with two small children and a PhD; Warner Bros.’ “Rosewood,” a John Singleton movie about the heroism displayed after a prosperous black Florida town is torched; and MGM’s “A Family Thing,” a tale about prejudice in which Robert Duvall discovers that his mother and half-brother (James Earl Jones) are black. And Reginald Hudlin (“Boomerang”) will direct Samuel L. Jackson in “Great White Hype,” a boxing comedy, for Fox.

These pictures and others stand to profit from the rush to “Exhale,” suggests Robert Sigman, chairman of Republic Pictures, the company releasing the critically acclaimed segregated South drama “Once Upon a Time . . . When We Were Colored” on Jan. 26. “ ‘Exhale’ could act as a trigger,” he says. “Since the black community found this movie so satisfying, it will be on the lookout for the next.”

Some believe, however, that “Exhale” is a one-shot phenomenon with box-office ingredients that are nontransferable. They say there are a limited number of Whitney Houstons--a crossover singer-actress who is two-for-two after scoring big with “The Bodyguard.” And Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ music, without question, was a help. The first single, “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop),” entered the charts at No. 1 nine weeks ago and is close to double platinum. The album--which may generate a record six singles--is now at No. 2.

“If the film is a statement, the album--with all-female artists ranging from Patti LaBelle to Aretha Franklin--reinforces it,” says Clive Davis, president and founder of Arista Records. “It not only heralded the arrival of the movie but will help create an international audience harder to entice since they’re less likely to have read the book.”

As the first of its kind, another executive points out, “Exhale” has become a kind of “anthem.” Whether the passion and enthusiasm can be generated again, he says, is definitely open to question.

“ ‘Purple Rain’ took in about $70 million with Prince and a phenomenal album, but he never did that again,” one insider recalls. “Like ‘Dangerous Minds,’ which also benefited from a driving soundtrack, something gets in the water, captures the public’s imagination and becomes bigger than it is. We shouldn’t be dropping our hats and trying to clone them. ‘African American women’ is not a ‘genre.’ ”

On one thing, however, everyone agrees. In a bottom-line industry accustomed to hedging its bets, “Exhale” provides incentive to turn out riskier movies--providing, of course, they can be made “for a price.”

“The success of ‘Exhale’--not to mention ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘Babe’--represents a triumph of the new,” TriStar’s Snider says. “In a crowded market, you’ve got to differentiate your product from what came before. These projects raise the bar for the rest of us.”