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'Precious' and its box-office crash: Is it failing to cross over?

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Close to a year ago, on a cold gray snowy evening, I walked out of the world’s very first showing of Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (it was then called Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire) during my very first day at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Like so many others who have now seen this film, I was moved, devastated, uplifted, blown away; as I walked over to a shuttle bus stop, my mind was still reeling from the movie. Yet I think that if someone, right then and there, had told me that the picture I’d just seen would be talked about less than a year later as a hot contender for the Academy Awards, I might have looked at that person as if they’d lost their mind. Over the years, I have loved and championed too many Sundance films only to see them get released into the real world and go nowhere, and Precious, with its uncompromising drama of abuse and despair, certainly didn’t look or feel like an Oscar movie.

Yet as everyone knows by now, Precious is the powerfully bleak inner-city drama that may just end up getting to go to the ball. In a turn of events that surprised and thrilled me the moment it happened, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on to be two of the film’s executive producers, taking this honest and artful little movie under their wing. The result of their devotion, along with a brilliant campaign by the film’s distributor, Lionsgate, has been that Precious, in six carefully planned weeks of release, has grossed $38 million — three times as much as The Hurt Locker, and even more than the crowd-pleasing romantic hit (500) Days of Summer. Even as it got beyond a handful of theaters, its per-screen averages were off the charts. Just today, the film was nominated for several Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture (Drama), Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. By any standard, Precious is a triumph of American independent cinema, an example of what can happen when talented people devote themselves to making something happen.

Yet the fairy tale, I’m afraid, has now run into something of a road block. Every successful movie, in its own way, waxes and then wanes with audiences, but over the last few weeks something startling has happened to Precious: After burning up the box office, it quite suddenly went cold. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, for instance (when it was still hot), it was on 664 screens, and it averaged a sizzling $10,680. (I don’t mean over the five-day holiday; I mean over the normal Friday-to-Sunday frame.) Then, just one week later, it was still on 664 screens, but suddenly the average was down to $3,437 — a virtual cliff drop of a plummet. One week later (which is to say, this past weekend), the movie was still on 664 screens, and the average had sunk to $1,929. In other words, within the space of three weeks, just as the awards season begins to get busy with actual awards, Precious has gone from being a breakout indie smash to a movie that looks as if it’s starting to squeeze out its last receipts.

I hope I’m wrong about that. But make no mistake: The vast majority of movies as successful as Precious do not — repeat, not — endure that kind of dramatic drop. So what I want to know is, why did this sudden commercial nose-dive happen? What I can’t help wondering is whether Precious did such extraordinary business by playing for about a month to a sizable African-American audience, only to end up stalling just at the moment when it was poised to expand to a wider demographic. Or is it that the movie, now that it’s attained such a high media profile, has suddenly been perceived as too much of a downer? Or have those two factors worked in tandem?

Here’s the thing: I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Because this is a movie that deserves, quite simply, to be seen, by every demographic under the sun, for its drama and truth and artistry and power.

But that’s why I want to find out what’s going on with Precious from all of you. Have you seen Precious yet? And do you plan to? And for those who haven’t seen it, what’s your perception of the movie? For those who have, do you think that it deserves to be seen by a much wider audience? And do you believe, in the end, that it will be?

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