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A Surprise 'Menace' to Box-Office Competition : Movies: Once thought of as potentially troublesome for its violent depictions, the No. 7 film is now playing without incident and grossed $4.6 million in six days.


It once was thought "Menace II Society" was a potentially troublesome movie. Now that it's out and playing to full houses without incident, it could be a potential threat to its box-office competition.

At some locations, according to distributor New Line Cinema, the L.A. gangbanger movie sold more tickets than either "Cliffhanger" or "Made in America," the country's first and second top-grossing movies over the Memorial Day weekend. It will also go into wider release by this weekend.

That's not to say that "Menace" is a guaranteed sleeper--it grossed $4.6 million in six days versus $20 million for "Cliffhanger" in three days--but its No. 7 ranking on the national box-office chart certainly surprised a lot of people, notably New Line.

The South-Central Los Angeles youths-in-trouble film, shot documentary style by the twin brother-director team of Albert and Allen Hughes, was perceived to be a niche film for mostly African-American audiences. The film also had no stars.

"I consider it a pretty phenomenal accomplishment," said Mitchell Goldman, president of marketing and distribution for New Line. "We've even gotten calls from exhibitors who now want to play it, some of the same people who just last week were skittish about it."

The pre-opening jitters that the film might be incendiary--the picture begins with a scene where a gang member shoots a Korean grocer and his wife in the head--caused one exhibitor to pull out from showing the movie at the last minute. Theater owners in Westwood would not play it at all.

But generally positive reviews that ran when the movie opened May 26 (on a Wednesday, because New Line believed there would be fewer problems with a midweek crowd) and a non-exploitative advertising campaign that doesn't glamorize gang life has attracted some cross-over moviegoers.

Newspaper ads for the movie list only the film's title and critics' quotes but purposefully don't feature any images from the movie's many violent inner-city scenes.

Also, for theater owners who asked, security was provided at New Line's expense--a prudent move that, so far, has paid off.

"We did great business in Hawthorne without any problems," said Nelson Bennett, senior vice president of Inner-City Cinemas. "People said afterwards they were glad they saw it. They walked out and said, 'Wow, that was deep,' but they also said, 'This is reality. It's gritty and tough to look at but it also shows the despair of being associated with gang members.' "

New Line is so enthusiastic it will open the picture wider to an additional 50-60 theaters by this weekend, up from 464 theaters the picture is currently booked into. And it plans to start a post-opening round of publicity to give the picture a bigger profile than it has had previously.

The filmmakers were interviewed by Time and Newsweek and a "walk-around" piece with them from the Cannes Film Festival, where "Menace" was shown in competition during the Directors Fortnight, is planned in Premiere.

Whether it will catch on with the onslaught of other big summer movies like "Jurassic Park" and "Last Action Hero" looming just behind "Cliffhanger" is another matter.

As Goldman acknowledges: "We're going to need a lot of help just to hold in there."

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