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'Precious' aims to translate buzz into box office gold

The drama about an abused teenager lists Oprah Winfrey among its vocal supporters and Lionsgate has planned targeted theater runs across the nation. Now it's up to moviegoers to take the bait.

November 05, 2009|John Horn

"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" has attracted abundant film festival awards and critical raves, including enthusiastic endorsements from talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and filmmaker Tyler Perry.

Now it's time to see what that's all worth.

The stark drama about a sexually abused teenager premieres Friday, and Lionsgate is hoping to convert the film's early support into ticket sales during a time when audiences are steering clear of serious subject matter.

For "Precious" to succeed at the box office, it must appeal to two divergent audiences simultaneously. But can the film become a must-see for black audiences across the nation and an art-house stop for upscale, metropolitan moviegoers? And by trying to do so, does it risk appealing to neither?

Lionsgate has booked "Precious" into four demographically distinct local theaters, and the selection speaks volumes to the studio's aspirations: West Los Angeles' the Landmark (primarily a home for highbrow fare), Hollywood's ArcLight (where art and commercial films coexist), Westchester's the Bridge: Cinema de Lux (a multiethnic destination for mass-appeal titles) and South Los Angeles' Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15 (one of the top-grossing theaters for African American patrons).

Come Monday, Lionsgate will review how director Lee Daniels' film played in those theaters (coupled with a look at its performance in similarly targeted bookings in New York, Chicago and Atlanta) to see where the greatest interest resides. If all goes as well as can be imagined, the film's theatrical expansion could build as surely as its Oscar chances.

"Precious" is looking to prove skeptics wrong. With moviegoers struggling to make ends meet and seeking escapism, movies as serious as "Precious" have struggled to sell tickets. The trickier the topic, the more difficult the task: Despite glowing reviews, neither "The Cove" (dolphin slaughter) nor "Amreeka" (ethnic assimilation) did much business, as audiences flocked to forget-your-cares titles such as "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "Fast & Furious."

Adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher from a novel about an illiterate black teen from Harlem whose father has raped and impregnated her twice, "Precious" is scarcely a typical feel-good story. But no matter what horrors the title character suffers from her abusive father or almost equally destructive mother (Mo'Nique), Precious (newcomer Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe) remains determined to escape her predicament, aided by a sympathetic social worker (Mariah Carey) and an idealistic teacher (Paula Patton).

"Yes, it's difficult and grim," says Fletcher, who is making his feature screenwriting debut on the film. "But the things that you and I want are exactly the same things Precious wants -- to be loved and give love and contribute. It's really that simple."

Releasing the film is a bit more complicated.

Advertisements for the film haven't hidden some of the movie's more disturbing elements while also trying to accentuate (perhaps disproportionately) its fleeting moments of uplift and fantasy. "What we've tried to do is to be really true to the movie and emphasize the emotional journey that makes it a unique theatrical experience," says Joe Drake, president of Lionsgate's motion picture group.

At the same time, Perry and Oprah (who will have Mo'Nique on her show Friday and may host Sidibe next week), have been urging followers to go see the movie. The studio placed "Precious" trailers on Perry's popular last two features, Lionsgate's "I Can Do Bad All by Myself" and "Madea Goes to Jail."

"We want the film to be a beacon for the African American audience," Drake says.

There are qualifications with each endorsement. Even though Perry's audience is expanding to include some whites and Latinos, his base is heavily female. Winfrey's audience has that same lopsided female-male split, and some of her movie endorsements ("Australia," "Things We Lost in the Fire") did not translate into box-office boons.

Assuming Perry and Winfrey can at least entice people to check "Precious" out, the critical test will be what the ticket buyers say when they leave the theater. "I'm very confident about what people will say and do after they leave the theater," Drake says.

Across the country, an array of unrelated people and interest groups are embracing the movie. The National Education Assn. has jumped aboard the "Precious" bandwagon, as have former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, an advocate for literacy (the couple are hosting a "Precious" screening in Houston).

If "Precious" is also going to be an art-house phenomenon, it must attract white moviegoers who were not huge supporters of black-themed movies such as "The Great Debaters" and "Akeelah and the Bee." That's where Academy Award attention may prove invaluable: To help improve the film's Oscar chances, Lionsgate has retained no fewer than four consultants and public relations firms to drum up "Precious" votes.

For the movie to go even further when it expands into national release over the Thanksgiving weekend, it will need to draw people like Drake's 72-year-old mother, whom the studio chief brought to the "Precious" premiere Sunday night.

"Our hope," he says, "is that this experience is powerful enough to get people like her to come."


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