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Box Office Bigotry?

Philip Burrowes

Barbershop, a movie seemingly destined to be just another rap star-vehicle, snuck its way to the top of the box office in September. My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened in April in 108 theaters and hasn’t looked back. Even Dreamworks’ The Ring can claim an unconventional source for an American hit; it was originally a Japanese novel (no, with words) before it became a series of films. Does this mean the U.S. movie markets are finally opening themselves up to flicks floating outside the mainstream? Has Hollywood taken notice and begun to produce novel productions? Is this just a strawman argument?

(Just in case you can’t tell, it’s the latter.)

Ice Cube’s performance in Barbershop was predictable, as he has a firmly established pattern of hit-hit-bomb-bomb going back to Friday. After Ghosts of Mars and All About the Benjamins, he was due (this means, furthermore, Friday After Next will be a hit, unfortunately). Dreamworks had it coming as well, just considering the sheer number of movies they make. Usually, when they take another author’s concept, whether it be William Steig or G-d, they manage to squeeze a fair amount of bucks from it.

Had these films actually been harbingers of a new open-minded spirit among American moviegoers, then we should have seen similar success in similar concepts. Brown Sugar was the number one new movie when it opened, but not with spectacular figures. If Paid in Full does well, then we can start talking about what Barbershop’s success “means.” Not much has been made of The Ring’s origin, perhaps for good reason given precedent. Disney’s dub of Japan’s all-time number one movie -- Miyazaki Hayao’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi -- has merely done moderately well in limited release.

That there are such films that can be compared to each other may be a step forward, but is that the product of studios taking chances or simply realizing what audiences have long been clamoring for? Putting Jackie Chan in a special-effects-laden picture like The Tuxedo may be just what his aging body needs to make him seem fresh, but then again maybe it’s a relic of the interest Americans had in wire-action at the beginning of the decade (’member?). Giving Adam Sandler a dramatic turn in Punch-Drunk Love could direct his considerable star wattage away from the repetitive and thereby depreciating slapstick of his typical fare, but then again he wasn’t far off from that in The Wedding Singer. Moreover, while Chan and Sandler’s current projects are doing reasonably well, they don’t compare to their respective penultimate pictures’ purses (Rush Hour 2 and Mr. Deeds). We can only wait for their next, slightly more typical roles and see how those grosses stand.

Sandler’s next movie has him playing himself (more or less), but drawn on cels, which may make for an unfair comparison. Cartoons are still viewed as a genre unto themselves, and recent attempts at animation have been hit and miss at the box office. Where Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network -- the two companies that dominate animated television, more so than even their broadcast-TV corporate siblings -- failed, miraculously the overtly religious Big Idea has succeeded. Focusing on those markets where their Veggie Tales brand name was strongest, i.e. not modern-day Babylons like New York, they opened Jonah -- A Veggie Tales Movie in the top 10, where it remains two weeks later. Its profit isn’t what’s impressive, but the notion that a movie should open (in the United States) in someplace other than New York or L.A. goes against mass-media logic.

Which brings us back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Jonah’s success seems oddly populist, but it was predicated on a corporate strategy; someone has to make the film reels and decide where to solicit them. Theaters (or theater chain operators), in turn, don’t have to pursue them. Individual people contribute to how long a film will stay at theater by buying tickets, but in the end the decision is out of their hands. Had nobody turned out to see ...Greek Wedding initially, cost-benefit analysis would have prevented it from ever attaining wide release, but at the same time success in a small environment didn’t automatically lead to more screenings. Even the slim budget of five million had to be acquired from elsewhere. Unless, of course, you’re Master P and you can make movies starring your son in a hip-hop version of Romeo & Juliet (not to be confused with Romeo Must Die, which was actually a child of that wire-action fascination we mentioned earlier). Scary, huh?

Happy Halloween!