Hollywood was stunned late last month when the youth-oriented action film "The Fast and the Furious" streaked past the competition to become the No. 1 movie, with $40.1 million in ticket sales.
With its relatively unknown cast of whites, Latinos, Asians and African Americans, heavy doses of high-speed chases and a driving hip-hop soundtrack, the movie defied expectations and sent studio executives scrambling to understand why this film about the illegal street-racing subculture had become a summer hit.
But the teen-oriented movie's success isn't so surprising when one glimpses the youthful crowds flocking to theaters such as the Cineplex Odeon at Universal CityWalk. With their ultra-baggy cargo shorts, doo-rags wrapped around their heads, and bodies festooned with tattoos and piercings, the look of these young moviegoers mirrors the multiethnic melange of actors on the screen.
Esteban Mejia, 20, of east Hollywood, who wears long shorts and a diamond stud and hoop "cartilage pierce" in his left ear, said the racial diversity of the movie has a distinct appeal that most mainstream movies don't have. He wouldn't go to primarily white teen movies like "She's All That," Mejia said, because he doesn't relate to white kids trying to act "hard" like their Latino and black peers.
"I don't want to see 'Clueless,' " he said, recalling the 1995 Alicia Silverstone teen comedy set in Beverly Hills. "Did I live a 'Clueless' life? No. Do I live a 'Clueless' life? No. If there's something that I've been through, then, yeah, I'll go."
Hollywood likes to pride itself on being ahead of the cultural curve, but with last summer's sassy white-versus-black cheerleading comedy "Bring It On" grossing $68.4 million domestically and this winter's "Save the Last Dance," with its once-taboo interracial dating, raking in more than $90 million in North America alone, the studios have only begun to catch up with the colorblind nature of today's MTV generation.
Rob Cohen, who directed "The Fast and the Furious," said the film not only reflects today's "multiculti" youth culture without purposely drawing attention to it, but depicts what is really going on.
When the movie opened, it drew a cross-section of races. Cohen said surveys taken at theaters where "The Fast and the Furious" played showed that 50% of moviegoers were white, 24% were Hispanic, 10% were black and 11% were Asian.
"I look at this and go, 'This is exactly what I'm talking about,' " Cohen said. "If that had been 80% ethnic and 20% white, that is not what we wanted. We wanted to affect the whole culture. This picture is not an 'ethnic' movie, it's an everybody movie."
Attracting a young audience across the country--a mainstay of big summer popcorn hits--"The Fast and the Furious" has grossed an estimated $78 million in less than two weeks and is on track to make well over $100 million.
Touchstone Pictures' romantic drama "crazy/beautiful," which opened Friday, deals with a Latino boy from a working-class East L.A. neighborhood who falls for a troubled girl from affluent Pacific Palisades. Mary Jane and Harry J. Ufland, who along with Rachel Pfeffer produced "crazy/beautiful," say that today's youth increasingly see the world as colorblind.
"I think we live in a multiracial world, and we want to make movies everyone identifies with," Mary Jane Ufland said. "When we started off . . . we wanted to tell a good story reflective of teenagers across the country, but also specifically about Los Angeles. We live in Santa Monica next to the Palisades, and we're very aware of Pali High and busing kids in from all over L.A."
Marc Abraham, one of the producers of "Bring It On," noted: "There is a much more interracial aspect [in today's culture] than the way this country used to be. Any movie that reflects that--and it doesn't mean they'll all be hits like 'The Fast and the Furious'--will ring true with the audience."
Over the years, studios have produced a steady diet of "niche" films targeting demographic markets such as African Americans. They know that black-themed movies can readily draw huge crowds from African American communities--"Waiting to Exhale," for example--but these films rarely capture the "crossover" white audience that is crucial in turning a moderately successful film into a blockbuster.
John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" was able to cross over, but few movies do. Where they do work is in broad comedies where there is an identifiable African American star, such as Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence or Chris Tucker.
Studios realize they can attract a crossover audience if a film realistically portrays the ethnic mix of society, so long as it doesn't appear cynical or calculated.