Perry's success has black films in fashion

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NEW YORK -- Tyler Perry's triumph at the boxoffice last weekend with "Why Did I Get Married" has heartened the growing number of studios looking to crack the market for black films.

But those studios also could face an unlikely problem: Tyler Perry.

The number of distributors and producers making movies that star and target blacks is climbing at an unprecedented clip. They're reversing a pattern of studio indifference that for years allowed smaller players like Lionsgate, which has seen a boxoffice gross of about $145 million from the three previous Perry films it has distributed, to enjoy a windfall.

"There's probably not one new story to tell that hasn't been told about white people," said Sony Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper, whose label is opening two black-targeted comedies in the next three months: the holiday pic "This Christmas" and the Ice Cube starrer "First Sunday." "But there are so many stories that haven't been told yet about people with brown and black faces."

For all the carping about how Hollywood doesn't give Perry respect -- though of course he often gets respect in articles about how he doesn't get respect -- it's also a fertile time for black movies.

At Our Stories Films, the Weinstein Co.'s co-venture with BET founder Robert Johnson, several projects are in development, while sister unit Dimension is prepping "Comeback," a sports dramedy with Ice Cube.

Even specialty divisions are getting in on the act. Fox Searchlight may have had a disappointing result with Chris Rock's "I Think I Love My Wife," but it's still casting in New York for a potential Notorious B.I.G. biopic and is readying a sequel to the Cedric the Entertainer vehicle "Johnson Family Vacation."

The evidence of the growing clout of the black audience? A minority filmmaking summit last week, where bigwigs such as Warner Bros.' Barry Meyer and Peter Roth turned out to address filmmakers.

Of course, Hollywood has shown notable, if erratic, interest in black audiences in the past decade. Franchises including "Barbershop" and the "Friday" films delivered boxoffice returns well higher than their budgets. But where those movies were limited to male comedies, the Perry renaissance has given hope for a future paved with everything from romantic dramas to art house fare.

"I think what we're going to start to see is black projects that in a way aren't really about race," said ICM's Andrea Nelson-Meigs, who reps black creators including Mara Brock Akil. "People didn't go see 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' because it was Greek. They went to see it because it was about how a family comes together."

And Perry's aura will continue to radiate to other films. "With every new success that Tyler has, I see two or three other projects that might not have been made before," said Keith Robinson, who's starring in "Christmas."

But the Perry phenomenon also could create a set of issues -- the film industry's equivalent, perhaps, of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo' money, mo' problems."

The success enjoyed by Perry has raised the boxoffice bar. If Perry is regularly pulling down $20 million on opening weekends, investors and execs might be disappointed when black movies open smaller, especially as budgets for these movies begin to rise. This summer, Our Stories was forced to change its tune on debut release "Who's Your Caddy?" after the Don Michael Paul film earned $6 million at the boxoffice, saying the release was meant mainly to prime the pump for home video.

And for all the new ground Perry has blazed, he's still an anomaly who will be hard to replicate. The creator didn't spring up from whole cloth but spent years building his brand by working what's known as the Chitlin' Circuit -- a string of venues popularized during the country's segregation era as being welcoming for black entertainers -- taking his plays to small and midsize cities.

Marketers will attempt the tough feat of doing that again -- literally, in the case of "First Sunday," which sources say will be positioned as a Perry-esque release because it comes from David Talbert, another black playwright who has a built-in audience (and who once directed a play on the Chitlin' Circuit in which Perry starred).

And execs, while careful to emphasize that they want to produce more fare for black audiences, say that the business picture is more complicated than it would appear on the surface. Advantages like new audiences for lower-budget product are offset by certain disadvantages, like limited international potential. And the media also could tire of the Perry peg if it's used too much.

Supporters of the category, however, say Perry and company will continue to force more and more studio heads to take notice. "Every time Tyler Perry has a success, Hollywood acts all surprised," said Matt Alvarez of Ice Cube shingle Cube Vision. "But they really shouldn't be surprised anymore."
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