While several black films have debuted at or near the top of the box-office charts over the past several years, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood has been that those numbers drop off before the movie reaches a mainstream audience.
The surprising success of ``Barbershop'' may be changing that thinking. The movie debuted at No. 1 two weekends ago with $21 million in box-office receipts, then stayed on top again last weekend, taking in about $13 million despite competition from new films starring Goldie Hawn, Susan Sarandon and Antonio Banderas.
Many black filmmakers and producers hope ``Barbershop'' will show that a movie with a predominantly black cast can have crossover appeal even if it doesn't star Will Smith or Chris Tucker.
``I felt for a long time that there's an audience out there that's hungry and starving for great films with African-American characters, and that's not just African-Americans looking for that,'' said Rick Famuyiwa, director of the upcoming romantic comedy ``Brown Sugar,'' starring Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan.
``Barbershop,'' which opened to mostly good reviews, stars actor/rapper Ice Cube as the weary owner of a barbershop handed down to him by his father. Over the course of the film, circumstances and a motley crew of characters played by Cedric the Entertainer, rapper Eve and others make him realize how valuable the shop really is.
It's not unusual for a black film to open strongly: 1999's ``The Best Man'' debuted at No. 1 with $9 million; ``How Stella Got Her Groove Back'' came in at No. 2 in 1998 with $11.8 million; ``Soul Food'' debuted at No. 2 in 1997 with $11.4 million; and ``Waiting to Exhale'' opened at No. 1 in 1995 with $14 million.
But those movies generally did not remain at the top for long, dropping a few spots each week before petering out at $35 million to $50 million making a profit, but not achieving widespread success.
``Barbershop,'' which cost only about $12 million to make, has made nearly three times that in just two weeks. Its producers, Bob Teitel and George Tillman, are amazed.
``If we had done half of what we did the first weekend, we would have been good,'' said Teitel, who also produced Tillman's ``Soul Food'' and co-produced
``Men of Honor'' with him. (``Barbershop'' was directed by Tim Story.) The filmmakers praise distributor MGM for not simply labeling ``Barbershop'' a black film and advertising it exclusively to a black audience.
``MGM really took the film to another level. They treated it with a lot more care than say you would your average African-American film,'' said Teitel. ``I think they started seeing that this film was for everybody.''
Adds Tillman, ``This is the first time that we actually had billboard, television and street advertisement.''
``They marketed it like it was a Tom Cruise movie,'' he said.
Exit polls show that about two-thirds of ``Barbershop's'' audience in its first weekend was black. The non-black audience appears to have grown in the second weekend, said Peter Adee, president of worldwide marketing for MGM studios.
The movie was marketed to all audiences, he said. ``Our movie just looked extremely funny, and I think that's why we have opened as well as we have and hung in there.''
Too often, Famuyiwa said, black films don't get that kind of support.
``I think it's sort of a given that an African-American movie is going to make a certain amount of money,'' he said. ``The whole kind of hit-making machine that you see applied to other films rarely gets applied to African-American films unless there's a Will Smith or an Eddie Murphy in it.''
But that is changing, said Gary Hartwick, director of last year's ``The Brothers'' and the upcoming ``Deliver us from Eva,'' starring Gabrielle Union.
``Mainstream movies have always been marketed to cross over to the black audience, it just hasn't always been true the other way around,'' said Hartwick.
``When movies like 'Barbershop' open the way that they do, it just lets everybody knows that it's possible.''
Nobody expects the film to change the industry overnight. Tillman notes that after the success of ``Soul Food'' and ``Men of Honor,'' there was no rush in Hollywood to make similar movies.
``Hopefully, the movie ('Barbershop') made enough impact where they cannot ignore it,'' Tillman said. Malcolm Lee, director of ``The Best Man'' and this summer's blaxploitation spoof
``Undercover Brother,'' hopes ``Barbershop'' will inspire more variety in black-oriented movies, not just copycats.
``What I don't want to happen is for there to be five 'Barbershop' scripts,'' he said.
Famuyiwa's hope is that films such as ``Brown Sugar,'' which opens in October, get the same opportunity in crossover marketing that ``Barbershop'' got.
``There's room for a lot of films to become bigger successes than there ends up being if studios weren't as shortsighted as they are in their treatment of African-American films,'' he says.