Robert Townsend resurrects his flagging film's fortunes -- The director's successful campaign to save ''The Five Heartbeats'' from an ignominious ending

Although Twentieth Century Fox’s publicity-hype machine operated at full speed before the opening of The Five Heartbeats, the Robert Townsend film garnered less than spectacular reviews and only $1.6 million at the box office its first weekend (March 29). A few days after the debut, rumors were rampant that the studio was preparing to pull the movie from theaters. The disappointed Townsend refused to give up hope. He and his supporters mounted a grass-roots campaign to help the film find its audience. ”When was the last time you saw a movie about five black men who bonded together, or a film that supports a strong black family?” says Townsend. ”Those things are clichés to some, but they are new and interesting concepts to black moviegoers.”

Promoting the film along with Townsend and the studio was Eddie Murphy’s personal publicist Terrie Williams. Together they launched the ”See This Movie” campaign, gearing it toward the black community. Joining the crusade, filmmaker Warrington Hudlin (House Party) contacted Black Entertainment Television and convinced them to air three one-hour programs on the film. And nationally syndicated radio talk show host Bob Law dedicated several nights of his Night Talk to Townsend and the movie. Law also hosted a special New York screening for religious leaders and others to increase awareness of the film’s antidrug and pro-family message, which brought endorsements from the city’s black community. Following the push, luminaries such as Janet Jackson, M.C. Hammer, Jesse Jackson, Mario Van Peebles, Debbie Allen, Spike Lee, and even the newly elected mayor of Washington, D.C., Sharon Pratt Dixon, all called Townsend to say ”keep up the good work.” The campaign seems to have had an effect: To date, the film has earned nearly $5 million and is still playing in theaters around the country.

”I think everything works for the positive,” Townsend says. ”Yes, I was disappointed by the opening grosses, but then all these filmmakers and other folks lining up to show their support is just tremendous.”

The Five Heartbeats
  • Movie
  • 121 minutes