How do black-themed films fare overseas? Sure, ''Barbershop'' cut up the competition in the U.S., but a crossover hit overcombing a continental divide is rare

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Cedric the Entertainer, Barbershop
Credit: Barbershop: Tracy Bennett

”I don’t think ‘urban’ means ‘black’ anymore,” says ”Barbershop” producer George Tillman Jr., and he’s got evidence: $51.3 million in the bank in just three weeks for his $12 million-budgeted so-called urban comedy — starring Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer — with roughly a quarter coming from white moviegoers. Compared with other small-budget African-American-themed films, that’s a storybook ending (complete with kvetching stepsisters Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who took issue with the film’s pokes at civil rights heroes).

But there’s still one last troll under the bridge: the international market, long held to be nearly impenetrable for black entertainment. ”Simply put, we live in a racist world,” says one studio exec, voicing Hollywood’s conventional wisdom. While foreign box office often exceeds domestic grosses, he says that on black-themed films ”we don’t think we’ll do anything more than $1 million overseas.” A foreign-sales agent notes that Italy, Japan, and South Korea are historically the toughest markets to crack.

Star power helps — but it’s in short supply. ”Very few African-American stars translate well overseas and can guarantee top dollar,” says PKay Krieg, managing director of Germany-based box office tracking firm Screenline. Her list of bankable black celebs: Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Chris Tucker, and Chris Rock. ”Eddie Murphy’s success depends on his role,” she reports. ”Martin Lawrence is not considered a major player.” (Still, according to studio estimates, ”Blue Streak”’s $49.2 million international gross topped ”Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”’ $43 million take.) And thanks to ”Blade II”’s $72 million foreign haul, Wesley Snipes has proved himself viable in action films.

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