In one of the final scenes in the new musical drama "Sparkle," Whitney Houston, playing a strict, religious-minded mother and former star, teases Jordin Sparks, playing her daughter that she won't sit too close to the front of the auditorium to watch the girl make her singing debut for fear of upstaging her.
Unfortunately, the untimely death of the Grammy-winning singer-actress in February threatens to do just that — Houston's posthumous presence is stealing at least some of the spotlight from Sparks, the "American Idol" winner who, in her inaugural film performance, plays the title role.
Opening Friday, "Sparkle" is a remake of the 1976 film starring Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas, which was regarded by many, especially in the African American community, as a landmark movie moment. The story centers on a family of three talented sisters being raised by a single mother whose own show business dreams were ended by addiction and an unplanned pregnancy.
The remake, which was directed by Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom") from a script by his wife and professional partner, Mara Brock Akil, relocates the setting from 1950s Harlem to 1960s Detroit. Houston performs one song in the movie, "His Eyes Are on the Sparrow," in a scene set in a church.
Sony Pictures, the studio behind the $14-million film, had scheduled "Sparkle" for its late-summer release long before the singer's death, calculating that mid-August would be an ideal time to attract older female moviegoers. After Houston was found dead in her room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Sony decided to stick to its plan.
"There was never a discussion about moving it up," said Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, which is distributing the project through its TriStar label. But he acknowledged the delicacy of the situation. "Right after her passing, we wanted to err on the side of not emphasizing her too much."
It's not the first time film marketers have had to walk the difficult line of selling a movie marred by tragedy. In the summer of 2008, Warner Bros. crafted a campaign for "The Dark Knight" that didn't downplay the presence of Heath Ledger's Joker but also didn't over-hype the presence of the actor who had died of a drug overdose months earlier.
In October of 2009, Sony released the Michael Jackson concert film "This Is It" after the pop star died in the middle of rehearsals for a series of upcoming stadium performances, positioning the backstage documentary as a tribute to Jackson's musical legacy.
In the case of "Sparkle," Houston not only appears on screen but was also instrumental behind the scenes. She and producer Debra Martin Chase acquired the remake rights 12 years ago — the duo had produced the 2001 Anne Hathaway-starrer "The Princess Diaries" together — and saw the project through many starts and stops. (Pop star Aaliyah was initially cast in the lead before the 22-year-old was killed in a plane crash.)
"There is a difference between exploiting a tragedy and marketing something that was someone's livelihood," Vincent Bruzzese, president of market research firm Ipsos OTX. "Whitney Houston did this movie, acted in this movie and obviously wanted the movie to do well. Of course, you don't want to have a campaign that says, 'See the movie, Whitney would have wanted it that way.'"
Bruzzese pointed out that the marketing campaign for "Sparkle" mirrors other films of its kind, including 2006's "Dreamgirls" and 2010's "Burlesque." The film's trailer and television commercials have the traditional feel of a movie musical: a lot of drum beats, some flashy dance numbers and indications that the main conflict lies between the mother's traditional philosophy and the girls' desire to perform.
Recently Sony has ramped up Houston's presence in its ads, releasing a new TV spot featuring Houston's singing voice as the backdrop, with a voice-over saying, "Celebrate the legend." Blake says it's a natural evolution.
"Now there will be some spots that will celebrate what [this movie] is: a great performance by Whitney in her last film," he said.
Traditional tracking numbers indicate that the film is likely to perform in a similar range to "Burlesque," the Sony Screen Gems film that opened to $12 million and grossed close to $40 million domestically.
"Sparkle" could outpace those numbers at the box office, though, should the studio successfully attract the interest of the older black female demographic, which is not easily measured in pre-release surveys. Those surveys typically target active moviegoers who in any given year see at least six movies.
"Whether it's Tyler Perry, 'Sex and the City' or 'Passion of the Christ,' there are certain movies that bring out those people who wouldn't qualify for a tracking survey," Bruzzese said. "In this case, the older black female. Maybe she goes to the movies one to two times a year and this is one of them. That's a substantial audience, but how big it is is difficult to tell."
For the moviegoers who do turn up at theaters, though, there are sure to be moments when the character Houston plays on screen — a woman who regrets the mistakes of her past and is determined to keep her daughters from repeating them — will bring up troubling reminders of Houston's own story.
Said "Sparkle" executive producer Howard Rosenman, who wrote the screenplay for the 1976 movie: "What was so tragic and ironic about this part is she played a character who served as her own cautionary tale."
PHOTOS: Houston's career in film