Columbia Pictures took a calculated risk when it released John Singleton’s gritty coming-of-age drama, Boyz N the Hood. The studio marketing campaign boldly targeted the core audience for the movie — black males under 25 — with a trailer and several TV spots that included shots of exploding gunfire. In the wake of opening-night violence for such films as Colors and New Jack City, there’s no question that the movie industry feared, maybe even expected, a similar reaction to Boyz N the Hood. Well before the opening, Columbia offered to pay the cost for any theater that wanted extra security.
The studio’s gamble paid off. Playing on 837 screens, Boyz N the Hood drew a huge audience, opening to $10 million. But there was a price: 33 people at 20 theaters around the country were wounded, and one person died. ”Columbia went after their core audience to secure a decent opening weekend,” says Mitch Goldman, president of distribution for New Line Cinema, ”even though the movie’s appeal went way beyond an action picture. That made good business sense.”
It’s likely that the picture would have made less money in its debut weekend had the studio downplayed the film’s gang content in favor of its more warmhearted elements, but there might have been trouble anyway. ”It was unavoidable,” insists one studio distribution head. ”This picture had the look of a film with an edge. Nobody wants to see a nice movie about black people, like The Five Heartbeats. Riots are caused by people, not marketing.”
Columbia executives deny they in any way ”sought to exploit or pander to violence.” Adds one source at the studio, ”Our campaign is true to the picture. The trailer shows three guys growing up in South Central L.A. It’s not Mary Poppins. And there’s no gun in the poster. If you compare the number of incidents to the number of people who saw the picture, it’s a tempest in a teapot.”
”I don’t think the marketing is to be faulted,” says Charles Richardson, president of Triad Marketing, which specializes in black-themed films. ”If Columbia hadn’t targeted young black males, they would have been going against the writer-director’s wishes. That’s who he said he wanted to reach.”
Singleton, 23, blamed the violence on a society that condones ghetto bloodshed. ”I didn’t create the conditions in which people just shoot each other,” the director said at a press conference. Others agree. ”The movie could have had nothing to do with gangs,” says screenwriter Michael Mahern (Mobsters), ”and still have attracted young black males — who were also drawn by Ice Cube [one of the film’s stars], the foremost proponent of ‘gangsta’ rap. The only campaign that could have avoided violence is one that kept the target audience away from theaters. People are as upset about Boyz N the Hood as they were about Scarface and Little Caesar in the ’30s.”
Another crucial factor in the events surrounding Boyz N the Hood‘s opening was theater security, which was in many cases clearly inadequate. ”At least some theaters (click here for more) did all they could do to minimize potential problems,” says Ken Smikle, publisher of the consumer trade Target Market $ News. ”To close your eyes and hope nothing goes on puts patrons in peril and creates a reputation for the theater.”
America’s preeminent black filmmaker, Spike Lee, rejoices in the fact that Boyz N the Hood made money. ”I think Columbia Pictures did a great job,” he enthuses. ”It grossed 10 million! What are they going to do — put a metal detector in every theater? I don’t think Singleton or the film is to be blamed. Once again the rap is that all black films attract violence. A guy got shot at Godfather III, and nobody called for that film to be pulled. I’d hate to see the day when films like this don’t get made or shown.”