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The Rise and Fall of 'Poetic Justice' : Movies: More than a classic sophomore jinx? John Singleton's second film grossed $11.7 million its opening weekend but lost 57% of its audience the next. Observers say his future is still secure.

August 13, 1993|TERRY PRISTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a companion book to John Singleton's current film, "Poetic Justice," director Spike Lee warned his 25-year-old colleague about the reception his second outing was likely to get: "The same people who said you were the second coming of Orson Welles will now say, 'What happened?' They'll feel it's their duty to 'knock you down a peg.' "

Lee's caveat to the Oscar-nominated director and writer of the 1991 low-budget smash hit "Boyz N the Hood" could not have been more prophetic. The new film, starring pop singer Janet Jackson as a poetry-writing South-Central Los Angeles hairdresser named Justice, did indeed get a battering from the critics, and it failed to draw many of the white moviegoers who flocked to Singleton's debut film.

Yet this was not the classic sophomore jinx. Exceeding expectations, the film pulled in an impressive $11.7 million in box-office grosses its opening weekend, propelling it to the No. 1 slot. But then "Poetic Justice" went on to lose a whopping 57% of its audience the following weekend. And by the weekend after, attendance had dwindled by another 58% in only a slightly reduced number of theaters. Audiences have been estimated as two-thirds black.

"Poetic Justice" had several things going for it, in addition to the Singleton name. An international star, Jackson had released a new album, "janet.," in May. Another popular recording artist, rap singer Tupac Shakur, portrays Lucky, a postal worker and would-be musician who gradually wins Justice's affection after they are thrown together on a trip to Oakland. Justice's poems were actually written by Maya Angelou, who has a cameo role in the film and was catapulted into prominence by her participation in President Clinton's inaugural ceremony.

Also enhancing the film's initial prospects was Columbia's decision to open it on a weekend when the only other two new releases were "Coneheads" and "Another Stakeout."

The film's slide is attributed to a variety of factors: the clutter of a summer season with no fewer than 60 major movies, including several by African-American filmmakers or featuring major black stars; white filmgoers' lack of interest in black-themed films, especially when reviews have been mediocre or worse; fears of violence, particularly in the wake of Cineplex Odeon's decision to delay the film's release at its Universal City complex; and--perhaps most important--the absence of strong word of mouth once the film had opened.

"It just wasn't a must-see," said Byron Lewis, chief executive of Uniworld Group Inc. of New York and a consultant to studios on the marketing of African-American films.

The polling organization CinemaScore said opening night audiences gave the movie a B-plus rating. "The grades are OK, not great," said CinemaScore President Edward Mintz. "They would not snowball word of mouth." The group that had most looked forward to the movie--the "couldn't waits," in CinemaScore parlance--gave the movie an A-minus. "That group should have given the movie an A-plus," according to Mintz.

Even so, "Poetic Justice," which cost less than $14 million and has so far grossed more than $25 million, is expected to return a modest profit for Columbia Pictures. Video rental prospects are considered good, according to executives of both the Blockbuster and Tower chains. In addition, Singleton's promising career--he was both the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director and the first African-American--is not believed to be in jeopardy, although he may incur closer supervision from Columbia executives the next time around.

Singleton has two projects in development at Columbia--a campus-based movie he wrote while at USC film school with the working title of "Higher Learning" and a Western called "Drumfire." Also, Columbia has acquired "Burnout," an action thriller written by Tony Peckham, for Singleton to direct. "Nothing's definite," said his spokeswoman, Cassandra Butcher. "John's got movies lined up in his head for the next five years."

Studio officials declined comment on "Poetic Justice," but co-producer Steve Nicolaides, who also produced "Boyz N the Hood," said: "John is in my opinion and in Columbia's opinion still a very substantial solid artist-filmmaker, and his best films are yet to come."

Singleton, whose production company is based at Columbia, was not available to discuss "Poetic Justice," but Butcher said he is philosophical about his attempt to chronicle the experiences of a young female inner-city artist. "He personally doesn't feel it's done bad," said Butcher. "It's a different movie--a movie about a poet. There are not many movies you could have made about a poet that could have done as well."

Butcher said Singleton was not crushed by the bad reviews: "He took it as constructive criticism."

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