When DreamWorks was about to release "Amistad" 11 years ago, white moviegoers told pollsters they planned to see Steven Spielberg's epic slavery drama. But when the film actually arrived at theaters, white ticket buyers mostly stayed away: "Amistad" is Spielberg's lowest-grossing movie over the last two decades.
More recently, 2004's musical biography "Ray" was greeted with approving reviews and two Academy Award wins. Despite all the acclaim -- and the fact that white adults not only collect Ray Charles records and CDs but also attended his concerts in droves -- the film's ultimate audience was overwhelmingly black, about 70% of all admissions.
Pundits and election strategists have been deliberating feverishly whether white voters who tell interviewers they intend to vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president will really do so once they enter the polling booth. While the discrepancy known as "the Bradley effect" (named after former L.A. mayor Tom Bradley's 1982 loss in the California gubernatorial election, in which he consistently led in polling) may prove to be a minor factor in this year's presidential race, it is still a prominent concern within Hollywood, as movies made by and with African Americans often struggle to attract white supporters -- both at the box office and within the studio's executive offices.
Not an easy sell
Friday's "The Secret Life of Bees" provides a perfect test case on the mainstream appeal of a highbrow movie partially anchored by black stars. Starring Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo (with Dakota Fanning in the lead role of Lily Owens), "The Secret Life of Bees" is adapted from the 2001 novel by Sue Monk Kidd. In part because its primary story unfolds in the home of three black sisters (and is set in 1964), the movie took seven years to get made, its makers say.
"It was a concern around town, absolutely -- a period piece with African American women," says producer Lauren Shuler Donner, who optioned the novel's film rights before it became a runaway bestseller.
But that kind of narrow thinking -- Focus Features put "Bees" in turnaround, and other studios passed on the project before Fox Searchlight and Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment stepped up to produce it -- might prove to be more scaredy cat-cautious than post-racially prescient.
While 20th Century Fox's "Max Payne" is poised to win the weekend box-office race, "Bees" is showing strong appeal among a swath of female moviegoers, and not only African Americans.
According to a recent audience survey conducted by the National Research Group, 68% of black moviegoers expressed "definite interest" in "Bees," while nearly a quarter of those surveyed said the film would be their first choice this weekend.
In part because so few white men are interested in the film, the "Bees" numbers among white audiences are significantly lower, with 34% of white audiences showing definite interest, and 6% naming "Bees" as their first moviegoing choice. (When Fox Searchlight tested the movie, it scored equally well with white and black audiences.)
Because of the building interest from white women (who in fact constituted the majority of the book's buyers), Fox Searchlight has recently shifted its "Bees" advertising plan, adding to its media purchases some television series with significant white female followings. Spots for the movie are now running on "Desperate Housewives," "Dancing With the Stars," "Beverly Hills, 90210," "The New Adventures of Old Christine" and "Ellen."
In releasing the film in nearly 1,600 theaters, Fox Searchlight is targeting not only complexes catering to black audiences -- including the AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw and the Bridge: Cinema de Lux in Westchester -- but also more suburban multiplexes that draw white crowds, such as Pacific's Paseo in Pasadena, AMC Rolling Hills 20 in Torrance and the ArcLight Sherman Oaks.
"We are going after women of all ages and all ethnicities," says Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight's distribution chief.
"No one has ever seen this book as a black book," says Gina Prince-Bythewood, who adapted Kidd's novel for the screen and directed "The Secret Life of Bees." "I am hoping that in the age of Obama, we can look at a trailer for a film and say, 'It doesn't matter who's in this, but does the story appeal to me?' "
In bringing the book to the screen, the film's makers have tried to punch up the novel's most modern storylines of political activism (Alicia Keys' character of June Boatwright wears a "Youth Council NAACP" T-shirt and a close-cropped afro), female empowerment, black entrepreneurship and, more than anything else, color-blind love. "The themes in the book are relatable to all people," says producer Joe Pichirallo.
While that may be true, other movies with black casts that may theoretically focus on universal themes have often labored to cross over.
Audiences for writer-director Tyler Perry's melodramas and comedies are usually more than 85% African American, and the early turnout for "Dreamgirls" was primarily made up of blacks and gay white males (the movie's demographics broadened as its positive word of mouth spread).
Some distributors have succeeded in expanding the white appeal of their black films by focusing on actors whose fans cross racial lines. When Screen Gems released "This Christmas" last November, ads for the movies focused on popular R&B; singer Chris Brown, even though he was barely in the film. The audience for "This Christmas" was ultimately about 30% white.
Some films about black characters face a very different problem.
Writer-director Lance Hammer's "Ballast," an independent film about the struggles of poor African Americans in the Mississippi Delta that premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, has been playing to enthusiastic white cineastes in downtown New York but may face a tougher challenge when it moves to Harlem and Brooklyn (the film opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 7).
"The truth is the art-house audience is white. That's tragic, but it's true," Hammer says, adding that a special preview of the film at Harlem's Riverside Church went well. "It was a big test for me to see if an art-house film that deals with an African American subject would be appealing to an African American audience."
Moikgantsi Kgama, whose Imagenation helps promote independent films that are relevant to black communities and has consulted on "Ballast," says she is confident that "The Secret Life of Bees" will hold broad interest, particularly because Queen Latifah, like Will Smith, appeals to people of all races. "She's not a black star anymore," Kgama says.
Says "Bees" producer Pichirallo: "When the entertainment business puts forth stories with black characters, the assumption is the audience will be largely black. But there is a real opportunity here to get an audience beyond the core African American audience. And if you don't market to the white audience, it is not going to know the movie is out there."