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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Soul Men' delivers mixed verdict on Obama victory

November 10, 2008 |  1:09 pm

SoulmenOver the past few days, everyone has been offering words of wisdom about what Barack Obama's historic presidential victory means, especially in terms of it being a seismic political event. But after I got over the emotional experience of seeing America embrace an African American as its president, I found myself wondering: Did this election really represent a huge cultural triumph as well as a political mandate? That was a big reason why I spent Friday night with "Soul Men" producer David Friendly, watching him do what producers often do on their film's opening night, traveling around to local theaters to see whether their movie has any juice at the box office.

"Soul Men" isn't just any movie. It's a comedy starring two prominent African Americans, Sam Jackson and the late Bernie Mac, playing '70s-era backup singers who reluctantly reunite three decades later to play at a memorial concert for their old frontman. So it was an intriguing cultural test case: Would white audiences come out to watch an R-rated comedy with two black actors engaging in uproarious, but often barbed and profane insult humor? The box-office results provided a simple answer: No.

The problem wasn't playability--the movie earned an A-minus CinemaScore, meaning that audiences largely enjoyed the film. Its reviews were mixed, but it actually earned warm notices from top critics like Roger Ebert and the New York Times' A.O. Scott. Its tracking numbers were originally pretty solid, solid enough for the Weinstein Co, which made the film, to predict a decent weekend performance. When Friendly and I grabbed a bite in Century City, before ducking into the AMC complex there, he said he'd been told to expect "somewhere between $9 and $10 million" for the weekend, citing various Internet box-office tracking services.

But audiences simply didn't show. The movie ended up making a dismal $5.6 million (that's the Monday-morning estimate--the final numbers could be even lower Tuesday). Since Tyler Perry films regularly draw far bigger numbers without crossing over to white audiences, it means that neither black nor white moviegoers came out in droves to see the film. But as my travels on Friday night revealed, "Soul Men" is just another reminder that we still have a bifurcated pop culture. Will Smith and Denzel Washington are movie stars to all people, but when it comes to more specific film genres, notably black family dramas and raunchy black comedies--even in this age of Obama---there remains a huge gulf between African American and white audience tastes.

What's going on here? Did "Soul Men" play completely differently at the Magic Johnson Theaters than it did in Century City? Keep reading:   

In a way, being with a movie producer on a rocky opening night is a lot like being with a losing political candidate on election night--they're grasping for good signs as the optimism of the early returns fades as the evening rolls along. A veteran producer who has had huge hits ("Big Momma's House"), Oscar films ("Little Miss Sunshine") and bombs ("Meet Dave"), Friendly got into the habit of going to theaters on opening night when he was a young Imagine production executive, working for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. "Frankly, going around to the theaters on opening night is the best way to settle your nerves," he told me. "If I was at home, trying to watch TV, I'd be a nervous wreck."

Early on, he was in good spirits, still buoyed by the movie's surprisingly good review in the New York Times--"I'd trade every other review for a good Times review. I was able to send that one to my mother." He said he wasn't expecting the tracking to be exactly on the mark. "I've had it both ways. With 'Meet Dave,' we came in way below expectations, but with 'Big Momma's House,' we came in way above expectations--the predictions were at $12 to $14 million and we ended up doing $29 million, which was a real rush."

At roughly 9 p.m., we walk into the AMC Century City theater complex, where both "Soul Men" and its biggest comedy competitor, "Role Models," are playing on nearby screens. Friendly ducks into the "Role Models" theater, which is packed solid. We watch the movie play for a few minutes. The audience is obviously having a great time. "Boy, they're doing good," Friendly says, a touch of envy in his voice. "But this is their neck of the woods. This is their audience."

We slip into a nearby screen that is playing "Soul Men." The theater is perhaps 40% full, the audience perhaps half black and Latino, half white. Friendly lingers inside, listening to Mac and Jackson deliver a stream of laugh lines. The audience is in good spirits, but it's hard to ignore all the empty seats. We find his car and head down the freeway to the Magic Johnson Theaters off Crenshaw Boulevard. On the way, Friendly gets a call from his wife, Priscilla Nedd-Friendly, a film editor who's currently working on a Sandra Bullock film. He tells her business was a little slow. "But we're on the way to the Magic Johnson--it should be better there." Beat. "It if isn't, I'm not coming home," he jokes.

When he gets off the phone, he says his wife wasn't surprised. "She said, 'What did you expect? It's a black movie and [playing before a white audience in Century City] it's always going to play like a black movie.' " Friendly shrugs. "I guess producers have to be more like dreamers. She's a real pragmatist." When we pull up outside the Magic Johnson complex, Friendly's mood brightens. "Ooh, it looks crowded," he says. "That's a good sign."

Inside, we're met by Cesar Corleto, the theater manager, who has good news. The 8:15 showing was nearly a sellout, with 281 out of 300 seats filled. It being the first really good news Friendly has had all night, he grabs Corleto and gives him a bear hug. "Saturday night should be even better," says Corleto, unfazed by the producer's sudden burst of affection. "Your movie could play here for four to six weeks." Friendly is ecstatic. "It's amazing," he says. "We're only four miles away and look at how different it is."

It's the high water mark of the evening. Minutes later, we run into Charles Castaldi, another one of the film's producers, who's driven by after checking out the crowd at the Hollywood Chinese. Except one thing: There was no crowd. The theater was largely empty. Friendly tries to put the best possible spin on that, noting that when he went to the Chinese to see the "Soul Men" trailer play in front of a Tyler Perry film, the theater wasn't crowded either. But Castaldi also reports that he spoke to "Soul Men" director Malcolm Lee, who'd just seen the movie in New Rochelle, N.Y. -- the theater was only half full. And in fact, when we duck into the 10:15 "Soul Men" screening here at the Magic Johnson, the crowd is laughing uproariously, but the theater is only half full too.

As we drive back to the Westside, I ask Friendly if he's heard from Bob Weinstein, the driving force behind the film. Friendly says no. He is too circumspect to connect the dots, but as any old Hollywood hand knows, no news is not good news. If things were going well, Weinstein would be working the phones, spreading the good cheer. Since it was already nearly 11 p.m. L.A. time--2 a.m. East Coast time--the news surely wasn't good. By the time we spoke again Sunday morning, Friendly knew the score. The film hadn't opened. He took solace in the CinemaScore numbers. "We definitely played well, but we just couldn't get enough people into the theaters," he said. "We're going to keep the theaters in the African American community, because they may still come out next weekend, but they just didn't come out on opening weekend."

It's unwise to read too much into one movie's performance. Universal recently had a big flop with "The Express" because white audiences didn't show up to see a period drama about African American football star Ernie Davis. But black audiences didn't turn out either. On the other hand, Fox Searchlight has done remarkably well with "The Secret Life of Bees," which has a largely African American cast and should pass the $30-million mark tonight, having drawn a sizable amount of white moviegoers.

But "Soul Men" is a timely reminder that movies are a complicated cultural experience. Even though people enjoyed the movie, its producers couldn't get people to make the commitment to go. Was it the R rating? The subject matter? Or was it the competition? When Friendly and I walked into the Magic Johnson, there were crowds of moviegoers, many with young children, all pouring out of "Madagascar 2," the weekend's biggest hit. It was the movie that attracted people of all ages and all colors. You could say it was the film that most resembled the crossing-of-all-boundaries coalition Obama put together to win the presidency last week. In that sense, "Soul Men" was more a symbol of the past than a glimpse of the future.