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Praying for Crossover Appeal

Movies: Disney's holiday wish is for 'The Preacher's Wife' to attract black and white moviegoers.

December 11, 1996|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For most moviegoers, "The Preacher's Wife" is just one of many feel-good family films arriving this holiday season. But for an African American filmmaker like Bill Duke, the sugary-sweet romantic fable, which stars Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington, has a much greater significance.

"It's a major test--I think every black filmmaker's going to be watching how that movie does," says Duke, director of such films as "Deep Cover" and "Rage in Harlem." "You have the two biggest pop icons of black culture coming to Middle America for Christmas. How it does at the box office could be a benchmark for black films in this country."

Houston and Washington are proven box-office attractions, but their biggest successes have come in films that paired them with white co-stars. So far, the highest-grossing film with an African American cast has been "Waiting to Exhale," which had brand-name appeal from a best-selling book and was buoyed by an all-star ensemble headed by Houston. Made on a budget of $20 million, the film grossed $68 million. But it did not attract a significant number of white moviegoers.

To make a profit on "The Preacher's Wife," which has a budget of more than $60 million, plus an additional $15 million in marketing expenses, Disney's Touchstone Pictures needs to reach a broader crossover audience. If the film, directed by Penny Marshall, can break the $100-million box-office barrier, it would challenge the prevailing wisdom that white audiences won't attend films with African American casts.

"It's a precedent-setting example of whether you can attract a significant number of white moviegoers," says Chris Pula, outgoing head of marketing at New Line Cinema. "Hollywood is a breeding ground for copycat projects. So if 'Preacher's Wife' works, you can bet you'll see more family-oriented projects that just happen to have black or Asian or gay characters."

Disney's advertising has carefully positioned "The Preacher's Wife" as a cozy family film promoting the universal themes of romance and redemption. The movie, a remake of 1947's "The Bishop's Wife," stars Washington as an angel who helps an overworked minister (Courtney B. Vance) tend his flock while rekindling his marriage to a choir leader played by Houston. As one African American producer put it, the film's print ads are so homey and old-fashioned they look as if they were "painted by a black Norman Rockwell."

"It's the kind of movie that goes straight to the heart," Touchstone President Donald DeLine says. "It's uplifting and warm and you come out feeling that all is right with the world. That's an experience that can be shared by anyone."

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It's no wonder Disney is determined to make the film appear as safe as milk. "The Preacher's Wife" arrives at a time when moviegoers are more racially polarized than ever.

"The problem in Hollywood is that everyone feels there are two separate audiences--black and white," says Dale Pollock, a producer of "Set It Off," a low-budget New Line Cinema film about four female bank robbers that has earned more than $32 million in five weeks of release. The film scored phenomenally well on its research screenings and got excellent reviews--but has played to almost exclusively black audiences.

It's not just youth-oriented films like "Set It Off" and "Menace II Society" that have only reached black moviegoers, who account for roughly 20% of Hollywood's domestic box office. Since "Boyz N the Hood," John Singleton's 1991 hit about coming of age in South-Central L.A., white audiences have shied away from movies with African American subject matter. Even though this past summer featured a record number of African American actors in mainstream studio film roles, from Samuel L. Jackson in "A Time to Kill" to Will Smith in "Independence Day," films without white stars still attract only black audiences.

Spike Lee's epic biography "Malcolm X" received strong reviews, but never attracted a white audience. Despite glowing reviews and the star power of Denzel Washington, "Devil in a Blue Dress" didn't find an audience, with whites or blacks.

Even with "Waiting to Exhale," "85% of its audience was African American," 20th Century Fox senior executive vice president Tom Sherak says. "It was a hit because it was made for and about a black audience. But we couldn't get a significant number of white moviegoers to see the film. If it had crossed over, it would have done $100 million easily."

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So why won't white audiences go to see black films? Are they put off--or simply uninterested--in films that speak directly to African Americans? Will they only go see films that have white stars they can identify with? Have incidents of violence at many youth-oriented black films scared them off? Or are studio executives, who are almost exclusively white, ill-equipped to market films that feature African American casts?

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