“The Best Man”

November 5, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


ACTOR: Let the games begin.

TERENCE SMITH: Not surprisingly, the film of choice for U.S. audiences over the Halloween weekend was the thriller, “The House on Haunted Hill.”

WOMAN PURCHASING TICKETS: Can I get three for “The Best Man.”

TERENCE SMITH: But it’s the film that came in second that week at the box office that has people talking. “The Best Man,” a romantic comedy which features an ensemble cast of African Americans, debuted at No. 1 the weekend prior to the holiday. When it opened, the film, about a wedding weekend reunion, earned an estimated $9.1 million, nearly its entire production budget. But the quick box office returns are only half the phenomenon of this low budget film. Universal Pictures has launched a $10 million advertising campaign that is aimed at winning over audiences of all races, not just African Americans.

SONG IN MOVIE: Will you …

TERENCE SMITH: Among “The Best Man’s” selling points, according to movie critics, is its wedding theme. Such movies like “Father of the Bride” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” often perform well among women of all races. And while the studio will continue to market the film to black moviegoers, universal is also targeting another demographic niche: White women, ages 18 to 24.

SPOKESMAN: The critics are celebrating “The Best Man.”

TERENCE SMITH: Universal has broadened its campaign to TV spots, like this one, during shows with primarily white audiences, including such shows as “Dawson’s Creek” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” And the film’s producers hope it will also benefit from the cyberspace equivalent of word of mouth, word of Web. Like last summer’s sleeper hit, “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Best Man” was pushed by an informal but intensive e-mail campaign to African Americans across the country. E-mails such as this one: “We must come out THE FIRST WEEKEND and tell everyone we know, because the main color that matters in Hollywood is GREEN $$$ … Tell all your friends and family whether they are black, white, brown, or purple! This is NOT just a Black movie!”

SPOKESMAN: Quiet — TERENCE SMITH: But other hit films with ensemble black casts, such as “Soul Food” in 1997, have not significantly crossed over to a mainstream audience. Industry executives admit reaching a crossover audience generally demands not a newcomer cast like this one, but crossover talent, such as Eddie Murphy or Will Smith.

WILL SMITH: (“Men in Black”) I make these look good.

TERENCE SMITH: Some members of The Best Man” cast have criticized the media for pigeonholing the film. In its fall preview, “Entertainment Weekly” called the film a “Big Chill” for the African American audience. In response, actor Taye Diggs wrote a letter to the magazine: ” I found this statement both inaccurate and ignorant, not to mention racist and stereotypical. I gather you were saying the movie is exclusively for African Americans, leaving out other races from its enjoyment.” Audiences, it seems, agree.

MOVIEGOER FRAN NEWKIRK: Color has no significance at all in this movie. It’s just about friendship and a man and a woman actually loving each other enough to want to be married.

MOVIEGOER MELODIE COOPER: It’s a movie that anyone could enjoy. It just so happens that the cast is African American, but it’s certainly something that I think all races could enjoy.

TERENCE SMITH: Nonetheless, studio research suggests that three weeks after its release, “The Best Man” continues to attract an overwhelmingly African American audience.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now is the director of “The Best Man,” Malcolm Lee; Stacy Spikes, founder of the Urbanworld Group, which hosts an annual film festival showcasing black talent. He has served as vice president of marketing at Miramax, and head of marketing at October Films; and Sharon Waxman, entertainment writer for The Washington Post. Welcome to you all. Malcolm Lee, let me begin by asking you what the success of your film, and congratulations on that –

MALCOLM LEE: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: — says to you about movie audiences today and what they’re looking for.

MALCOLM LEE: In particular, we had a lot of good response from the African American audience. And it really showed me that they’re starving for other forms of entertainment and stories about the African American experience that don’t involve drugs or despair or living in the ghetto.

TERENCE SMITH: Stacy Spikes, what, from a marketing point of view, was the key here? What has made the difference — to take this film and make it No. 1 one weekend and No. 2 the next?

STACY SPIKES: It has a unique story I think as Malcolm said. It crosses line. It’s a movie that’s a great film. It hits emotional highs that films should have. And it also just is a wonderful film that you want to see. When you leave, you’re very happy that you went and saw it.

TERENCE SMITH: Sharon Waxman, has this film, would you say, caught Hollywood’s attention — by being No. 1 and No. 2, two consecutive weeks? Would it lead perhaps to more films like it?

SHARON WAXMAN: [No audio] and the black community — I’m hearing a return here — would say that despite the success of other African American films, there have not been a lot of movies put into production that would imitate or move along on that path like “After Waiting to Exhale,” which was a huge success. There were not 10 other “Waiting to Exhale,” you know, similar films put into production. There have been some. There have been “Soul Food.” There was “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” But, you know, that seems to be the question, I think that the success of this film will get people’s attention. But it remains to be seen if Hollywood is going to go around and do another 10 films like this. Although I think universal has Malcolm’s next film, isn’t that right, Malcolm?

MALCOLM LEE: That’s correct, Sharon.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us about it and whether it follows in any way what you did with this film.

MALCOLM LEE: Well, it’s certainly going to touch or delve deeper into male-feminine relationships. And I think that I’ve touched on it some in “The Best Man.” That was over like one weekend. And the tentative title is called “Sex and the Married Man.” I’m not sure where I’m going to go with that yet, but you know, I have some ideas percolating.

TERENCE SMITH: When you wrote this film, “The Best Man,” did you have an audience in mind, a particular audience?

MALCOLM LEE: Somewhat. I had a feeling this women would appeal to African Americans, certainly. It’s kind of like in somewhat of a response to “Waiting to Exhale” in that they had four women at its core who are educated, intelligent, leading interesting lives — where I wanted to have four black men do the same kinds of things. But the story, especially, you know, surrounding a wedding, such a universal feel to it, universal — you can’t get more universal than a wedding. So, you know, when I was writing it, I didn’t really feel like it should be pigeonholed to appeal just to one kind of audience, you know, because I certainly loved “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and it didn’t have a black person in the wedding — the same with “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” I feel that if you can enjoy a movie with Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant, who wasn’t a star at the time in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” then you can certainly enjoy the film “The Best Man.”

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you about the e-mail campaign that seems to have made some difference here. What was behind that and is that something for other films in the future?

STACY SPIKES Well, I think that there’s a pride that comes along with these movies that if it hits the right note. Malcolm and I were talking about this earlier. I got maybe 30 or 40 e-mails of people saying “Are you going to see this film?” “We’re going to see the film — you’re going to be there on opening night, right?”

TERENCE SMITH: Sort of a rally around the flag?

STACY SPIKES: Absolutely. And we have to make a statement to say that if we don’t support our own films at the box office, then who will? Then we can’t complain about the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make more movies featuring people of color and especially a film that has such positive role models. One of the most unique things about this movie is no one was carrying a gun. No one was robbing a liquor store. Everybody was really happy, upper middle class prosperous, you know, married and everyone was what I know in America as black Americans. So it was very unique to have that kind of story.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. But from your experience in marketing films, what would it take to make a film like this become a crossover hit?

STACY SPIKES:I think the universal hit on it where they go after, for instance, Taye Diggs has had crossover appeal with other movies he has been in.

TERENCE SMITH: He’s the best man — the principal star here.

STACY SPIKES: Correct. Correct. And you could see immediately in the second week campaign he did “Later Today” and other shows that weren’t black shows but they moved him quickly into shows that would have a crossover audience. And their advertising also impacted that as well. So I think you have to push that but America still has to open up a little bit and be willing to go see those movies regardless.

TERENCE SMITH: Sharon Waxman, you wanted to say something?

SHARON WAXMAN: I wanted to comment just on the idea of an e-mail campaign and people trying to rally people around the flag to go see a film like this. I don’t think that you can have a hit film based on a lot of people sort of doing the right thing in terms of supporting one kind of film or another kind of film. You know, this film’s success is about people going to see the film because they like the film — not because they think it’s the right thing or sends the right message or we have to be supportive. Most people are out there working all week and they would like to go to a fun movie on the weekend and they’re going to a movie that appeals to them and looks like fun. So if this movie has succeeded, it’s probably because it answers all those needs, not because people, you know, a significant number of people, enough people to make it a hit, are trying to send a message of any sort.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. But in Hollywood, why is it so difficult? You pointed to the history of a hit, and then not necessarily a follow-up. Why is it so difficult to get films made with principally African American themes or casts or both?

SHARON WAXMAN: I don’t think there is a really good answer to that. I think my sense of it is not anything as simple as there is racism in Hollywood or it’s not quite so stark as this. I think it has to do more with the fact that there are not a lot of minority studio executives in the positions who can green light movies. And so they don’t relate, perhaps, to those scripts or they don’t, you know, recognize themselves in those stories, which they ought to. And it ought to be an economic decision. If one movie is a huge hit and makes a lot of money, logic would dictate would you go out and try to make another one. But I think this has been a longstanding concern in the African American film community, I think. I hear it all the time, that there are not enough people of color making the decisions to, you know, make the films.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, let’s ask Malcolm Lee about that. You’re part of a rather famous filmmaking family, your cousin Spike Lee. Is it difficult?

MALCOLM LEE: Yes, certainly it’s difficult you know. I got to make this film because I wrote the right script at the right time. I think the films like “Waiting to Exhale” and “Soul Food” which are two years apart from each other were very integral in having — in getting “The Best Man” made. And even if we did have, you know, executives of color in the studios, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get the films green lit either. I think — it seems to me that the bottom line is how much money these films are going to make. And they’re only going to make this movie for a price, you know. This was a $9 million movie. If we had the same story line, a wedding, romantic comedy and we had had white actors in it, I’m sure we would have had a bigger budget for this movie because — simply because the actors that we could have gotten or attracted to this movie, would have been a higher — not higher caliber, but higher –


TERENCE SMITH: Bigger profile. I saw the movie. I enjoyed the movie. A thought occurred to me but I want to ask you. You could have made this in theory with an all-white cast. In other words, the themes are there and they are universal.


TERENCE SMITH: You buy that?

MALCOLM LEE: I mean could I have, yeah. I mean I think you could put any race of people into this film. It’s a film about human beings and about love and fidelity and commitment — things we can all relate to. And I know that, you know, as an African American man, I know I go through these issues and I know plenty of people in my friends and family that I’ve associated with who go through these issues as well, so why not it a black film or film with predominantly African Americans in it because it’s long overdue — you know, a film like this is long overdue where you have people celebrating love, you know, and there’s very little love that’s scene on screen with African Americans.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. All right. Thanks very much to all three of you.

MALCOM LEE: Thank you.

STACY SPIKES: Thank you.