Praying for Crossover Appeal

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For most moviegoers, "The Preacher's Wife" is just one of many feel-good family films arriving this holiday season. But for an African American filmmaker like Bill Duke, the sugary-sweet romantic fable, which stars Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, has a much greater significance.

"It's a major test--I think every black filmmaker's going to be watching how that movie does," says Duke, director of such films as "Deep Cover" and "Rage in Harlem." "You have the two biggest pop icons of black culture coming to Middle America for Christmas. How it does at the box office could be a benchmark for black films in this country."

Houston and Washington are proven box-office attractions, but their biggest successes have come in films that paired them with white co-stars. So far, the highest-grossing film with an African American cast has been "Waiting to Exhale," which had brand-name appeal from a best-selling book and was buoyed by an all-star ensemble headed by Houston. Made on a budget of $20 million, the film grossed $68 million. But it did not attract a significant number of white moviegoers.

To make a profit on "The Preacher's Wife," which has a budget of more than $60 million, plus an additional $15 million in marketing expenses, Disney's Touchstone Pictures needs to reach a broader crossover audience. If the film, directed by Penny Marshall, can break the $100-million box-office barrier, it would challenge the prevailing wisdom that white audiences won't attend films with African American casts.

"It's a precedent-setting example of whether you can attract a significant number of white moviegoers," says Chris Pula, outgoing head of marketing at New Line Cinema. "Hollywood is a breeding ground for copycat projects. So if 'Preacher's Wife' works, you can bet you'll see more family-oriented projects that just happen to have black or Asian or gay characters."

Disney's advertising has carefully positioned "The Preacher's Wife" as a cozy family film promoting the universal themes of romance and redemption. The movie, a remake of 1947's "The Bishop's Wife," stars Washington as an angel who helps an overworked minister (Courtney B. Vance) tend his flock while rekindling his marriage to a choir leader played by Houston. As one African American producer put it, the film's print ads are so homey and old-fashioned they look as if they were "painted by a black Norman Rockwell."

"It's the kind of movie that goes straight to the heart," Touchstone President Donald DeLine says. "It's uplifting and warm and you come out feeling that all is right with the world. That's an experience that can be shared by anyone."

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It's no wonder Disney is determined to make the film appear as safe as milk. "The Preacher's Wife" arrives at a time when moviegoers are more racially polarized than ever.

"The problem in Hollywood is that everyone feels there are two separate audiences--black and white," says Dale Pollock, a producer of "Set It Off," a low-budget New Line Cinema film about four female bank robbers that has earned more than $32 million in five weeks of release. The film scored phenomenally well on its research screenings and got excellent reviews--but has played to almost exclusively black audiences.

It's not just youth-oriented films like "Set It Off" and "Menace II Society" that have only reached black moviegoers, who account for roughly 20% of Hollywood's domestic box office. Since "Boyz N the Hood," John Singleton's 1991 hit about coming of age in South-Central L.A., white audiences have shied away from movies with African American subject matter. Even though this past summer featured a record number of African American actors in mainstream studio film roles, from Samuel L. Jackson in "A Time to Kill" to Will Smith in "Independence Day," films without white stars still attract only black audiences.

Spike Lee's epic biography "Malcolm X" received strong reviews, but never attracted a white audience. Despite glowing reviews and the star power of Denzel Washington, "Devil in a Blue Dress" didn't find an audience, with whites or blacks.

Even with "Waiting to Exhale," "85% of its audience was African American," 20th Century Fox senior executive vice president Tom Sherak says. "It was a hit because it was made for and about a black audience. But we couldn't get a significant number of white moviegoers to see the film. If it had crossed over, it would have done $100 million easily."

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So why won't white audiences go to see black films? Are they put off--or simply uninterested--in films that speak directly to African Americans? Will they only go see films that have white stars they can identify with? Have incidents of violence at many youth-oriented black films scared them off? Or are studio executives, who are almost exclusively white, ill-equipped to market films that feature African American casts?

What makes this impasse especially frustrating is that it comes at a time when black artists have reached a broader white audience than ever in hip-hop music, sports and television.

"Music and TV are different--they're very personal and private," Pollock says. "Movies are a much more social activity. It's depressing, but it shows that people of different races are still not comfortable socializing with each other."

Studio executives say white attendance at black-oriented films dropped significantly in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Moviegoers, both white and black, have also been scared off by violent incidents that occurred at showings of films like "Menace II Society," "Above the Rim" and "Set It Off."

"After the riots, the whole crossover market changed," says New Line's Pula, whose company made the aforementioned films. "Pre-riots, a film like 'Set It Off' could've done $50 [million] or $55 million. But now we're happy to do $35 million. Concerns about violence have killed off our crossover audience."

Bill Duke says his film "Deep Cover" did far better as a video rental than as a theatrical film. "White kids come up to me all the time, telling me how much they loved that film," he says. "And I bet you $100 they never saw it in a theater. The interest is there. White kids love Michael Jordan the same way they've always loved Jimi Hendrix. But when you're worried about seeing a film in what is perceived as a dangerous environment, then you're going to avoid the moviegoing experience."

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Some filmmakers complain that studios put little effort into marketing African American films to a broader audience. "The studios are often happier marketing movies to two separate audiences," one producer says. "If it's a black film, they only go to Black Entertainment Television, UPN and Fox. It's a lot harder getting them to take ads on 'Friends' or 'ER.' They don't think they'll get enough return on their investment."

Industry insiders believe that if any film can cross over, it's "The Preacher's Wife," which will benefit not only from the presence of two mainstream stars, but from a heavily promoted Houston soundtrack album. "Whitney is her own built-in marketing machine," one studio marketing chief says. "Her record company is already doing network TV spots, which promote the movie as much as the album. When you add that to the video and radio airplay her songs are getting, it gives the film a tremendous competitive advantage."

Disney also moved the film up to Friday to give it a two-week jump on "Michael" and "One Fine Day," two potential hits that are expected to attract a largely female audience. The move puts the film up against two potent box-office contenders, Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" and "Jerry Maguire," whose star, Tom Cruise, has especially strong appeal with the same female audience "The Preacher's Wife" hopes to attract.

Disney executives are confident that the film's appeal will extend beyond African American moviegoers. "We're going after the biggest audience we can get," DeLine says. "This is a mainstream movie. Denzel's a star, Whitney's an international pop icon and we think there are lots of people who want to see them together."

Among black filmmakers, the mood is cautious, but hopeful. "I can't imagine this movie offending anyone," Duke says. "But it all comes down to business. If a studio bets on Whitney Houston and knows it can get its dollar back, then maybe next year, it'll be time to bet on someone else."

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