THINK LIKE A MAN: African-American audiences surprise the industry yet again.

“The No. 1 movie in North America over the weekend, and by a long shot (sorry, Zac Efron), came as a surprise to the movie industry: Think Like a Man,” a low-budget ensemble comedy aimed at African American audiences took in an estimated $33 million…” wrote NYTimes’ film journalist Brooks Barnes in The Arts section’s “Arts, Briefly” column on Monday (April 23, 2012).

And yet I doubt that Screen Gems marketers and the research firm they’ve used used to track audience awareness and predict box office results were as surprised at the success of Tim Story‘s adaptation of Steve Harvey‘s best-selling relationship advice book:

as were the pundits.

Barnes, whose columns I often admire (two of which I use as class readings), must have written this news-blurb in haste, since the value and loyalty of the African-American movie-going public is well established, its capacity to win the BO sweepstakes on behalf of low budgeted, carefully-targeted movies long proven. Perhaps, Barnes should have said that white, naval-gazing movie industry types were surprised–those same anonymous but apparently defining “deciders” who wonder what all the fuss is over Tyler Perry?

[Note: Hollywood Reporter’s article notes that Screen Gems was anticipating a $17M dollar opening, so they were, in fact, delighted at how much better the film did.)

As neither a member of the “surprised” industry nor of the reflexively overlooked African-American movie going public, I decided to look at the trailer to see what the movie had to offer audiences. I watched it a few times and uncertain about my judgment, I decided to consult my friend, London, an African-American screen writer and one-time assistant to a Very Important African-American director/producer who shall remain nameless.

The trailer is nearly 2 and 1/2 minutes and explains–through dialogue, copy, cast run, reference to the source-material and Mr. Harvey, a famous comedian, actor, and widely syndicated radio host–what you can expect from this battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Technically, I’d call it a tell-all trailer. London agreed. I asked him whether, in his judgment, tell-all trailers met with the same ambivalence among African-American audiences as they do with the predominately white audiences polled by market researchers: to wit, that while audiences complain about being told the plot and shown the best parts, the more they know they more likely they are to buy a ticket to see it. He said they did, noting that in his experience/observation, African-American audiences were just as likely to enjoy the joke, the gag, the scare or the spectacle for a second time in the theater or a third time retelling it to friends, as their “mainstream” counterparts.

Then London, who was not at all surprised at the success of the film’s opening weekend, broke it down for me: For African American audiences, this trailer was more of a courtesy reminder about what they already knew and eagerly anticipated: Steve Harvey’s book was published 3 years ago to a sensational response. The decision to adapt it into a film by a well-known, studio-vetted African-American director (Story helmed the two Fantastic Four films), had been well and repeatedly publicized via Mr. Harvey’s radio show as well as in his facebook and twitter accounts, and pushed through the social-media networks of its ensemble cast.

Kevin Hart, the speed-talking stand-up comedian, known for manic craziness and virtuoso ad-libbing, was the second pillar of the film’s appeal. Lastly, this comedy shoe-horns eight recognized, respected, attractive and modestly bankable stars, any of whom could anchor a small film, but taken together were considered to confer exceptional value in a vehicle designed to deliver a small dose of entertaining (albeit predictable) conflict alongside a surfeit of broad comedy.

London encouraged me to look at the trailer for Tyler Perry’s latest, Good Deeds, a box-office under-performer pitched to a similar audience as a comparison.

This earnest, uplifting romantic drama, starring Mr. Perry, who also wrote and directed, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Gabrielle Union, Rebecca Romijn and Eddie Cibrian, tells the story of a privileged and utterly predictable African-American businessman who intervenes in the life of a homeless maid who works for his company and ends up transforming his own life.

While Good Deeds made nearly $35M during its 59 days of release, it ranks 10th among Perry’s other films, behind such brand stalwarts as the Madea films. Featuring an ensemble cast like Think Like a Man, the Good Deeds trailer is less revealing about the plot (we see that Perry’s character changes; we don’t see just how radically), yet still forthcoming about the conflicts, the likely outcomes and the emotional payoff.

While Good Deeds benefits from Perry’s hit-maker status and Lionsgate’s marketing savvy and reach, Perry is not especially esteemed as an actor, and while Thandie Newton certainly is, she’s not known for opening films by herself. The source material, like that of many of Mr. Perry’s films, derives from his plays, with plots, characters and situations repurposed as needed. (In this case, it appears to be a rehash of material from his The Haves and the Have Nots.)

London informs me that the African American audiences understands that for every two or three Madea-like films, Perry makes a more personal and serious one, which are typically less commercially successful. No surprise there, since comedy trumps uplift at the box office, no matter how you draw the color line.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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