The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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'Secret Life of Bees' buries the 'Bradley Effect'

October 30, 2008 |  5:40 pm

Bees_2 Will white folks go to movie theaters to see black folks in a movie without any big white stars? That was the question some of us in the media were all asking before the release of "The Secret Life of Bees" earlier this month. Most old-fashioned movie marketers had said--not likely, based on past experience and long-held attitudes about white moviegoers. Some marketers cited the "Bradley Effect," the controversial analysis of a Tom Bradley 1982 election defeat in the California gubernatorial election where he'd led in polling before the election, prompting pundits to blame the loss on white voters who didn't tell pollsters how they really intended to vote. 

But guess what? "Bees" has quietly emerged as a minor hit, now projected to pass the $30-million mark at the box office. And as my colleague John Horn reports, it's doing even better in theaters catering to white moviegoers than in traditionally African American theaters. What gives? Here's John's report:

Fox Searchlight was confident that African American moviegoers would turn up for "The Secret Life of Bees," whose cast includes Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys. But the studio and the film's makers worried that white audiences, even after they embraced the bestselling Sue Monk Kidd novel on which the film was based, might stay away when the film premiered on Oct. 17.  After two weeks of release, it's clear that white ticket buyers are not only showing up for "Bees" but also are becoming the film's most loyal audience.

Last weekend, the film grossed more at Pacific's The Grove Stadium 14 than it did at the AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15. In the rest of the country, theaters catering to black moviegoers reported strong opening weekend "Bee" sales but suffered steep declines last weekend. It's consistent with how movies with strong African American appeal--including Tyler Perry's efforts--tend to perform. For example, "Bee's" grosses at Georgia's AMC Southlake Pavilion 24 fell more than 61% last weekend, and sales at Maryland's Regal Bowie Crossing Cinema 14 collapsed almost as badly.

But in theaters that tend to cater to white audiences, support remained much stronger.  "Bee" sales at Oregon's Regal Cinemas Bridgeport Village Stadium 18 were down just 32.1%, and grosses at Northern California's Century 14 Downtown Walnut Creek dropped less than 18%. With total ticket sales of more than $21 million, "The Secret Life of Bees" will never catch "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." But "Bees" is not suffering from any "Bradley Effect" discrimination, and the very thing that scares off potential studio backing--an almost entirely black cast--has shown to be not a liability at all.

Photo of Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys in "The Secret Life of Bees" by Sidney Baldwin / Fox Searchlight