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A Healthy Appetite for 'Soul Food'

Movies: Film centering on an African American family's Sunday dinners debuts at No. 3, trailing 'The Peacemaker' and second-place 'In & Out.'

September 30, 1997|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When writer-director George Tillman Jr. was shopping his screenplay about a large middle-class African American family around Hollywood, some studio executives turned him down cold, saying the project needed action and violence if it was ever to attract audiences.

How wrong those studio executives were.

Tillman's new film, "Soul Food," based on his memories of his grandmother's Sunday afternoon dinners attended by the whole family, debuted at No. 3 at the box office this weekend, taking in a respectable $11.2 million--and a healthy per-screen average of $8,363.

The movie gave a scare to two bigger, heavily promoted films: "The Peacemaker," the first film from DreamWorks SKG, which captured first place with $12.3 million, and Paramount Pictures' gay-themed comedy, "In & Out," which nudged out "Soul Food" with $11.22 million.

But it was "Soul Food" that turned heads in Hollywood on Monday morning.

Produced on a shoestring budget of $7.5 million--and filmed over 30 days in Chicago--the film features Vanessa L. Williams and Vivica A. Fox but no bankable stars. Yet, it struck a chord in the African American community, where it did brisk business.

Tillman, 28, said he hung out Friday night at the Magic Johnson Theaters in Baldwin Hills just to see how his film was doing and was amazed at the outpouring of emotion he found.

"I just wanted to scout it out," he said Monday. He heard laughter. He heard crying. "I saw people coming out of the theater discussing and conversing about the film. That made me feel good."

The script eventually caught the attention of Tracey E. Edmonds, who, with her husband, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, were in the process of setting up a new production company. Tracey Edmonds became producer along with Robert Teitel, Tillman's producing partner since college days. The film was released under the Fox 2000 banner.

The film is told through the eyes of a young narrator, Ahmad, whose grandmother presides over a 40-year tradition of Sunday family dinners of fried chicken, sweet corn bread, smoke-cooked ham and deep-dish peach cobbler.

"It goes back to when I was a little kid," Tillman said. "There was a group of six women in my household. My mom, aunts and grandma. I watched them in the kitchen. I wanted to make a film about that."

Fox distribution chief Tom Sherak estimated the movie could eventually take in between$40 million and $50 million at the box office when its domestic run is through.

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Weekend Box Office

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Three-day gross/ Screens/ Weeks in Movie (Studio) Total (millions) Average Release 1. "The Peacemaker" $12.3 2,362 1 (DreamWorks) $12.3 $5,213 2. "In & Out" $11.22 2,268 2 (Paramount) $30.4 $4,949 3. "Soul Food" $11.20 1,339 1 (Fox 2000) $11.20 $8,363 4. "The Edge" $7.7 2,351 1 (Fox) $7.7 $3,289 5. "The Game" $5.0 2,521 3 (PolyGram) $35.8 $1,989 6. "L.A. Confidential" $4.4 824 2 (Warner Bros.) $11.6 $5,367 7. "Wishmaster" $3.1 2,502 2 (Live Entertainment) $10.8 $1,253 8. "The Full Monty" $2.8 783 7 (Fox Searchlight) $14.0 $3,516 9. "A Thousand Acres" $1.6 1,228 2 (Disney/Touchstone) $5.5 $1,292 10. "G.I. Jane" $1.3 1,814 6 (Disney/Hollywood) $44.6 $742

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SOURCE: Exhibitor Relations Co.

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