New York, NY, October 26, 2009 -- The folks at film sales and financing company Cinetic Media have an infamous parlour game they play in advance of a film opening in theaters. John Sloss and his colleagues each try to predict a movie's theatrical box office. Clearly, the big film they'll be prognosticating next is Lee Daniels' "Precious," which hits U.S. theaters next Friday (November 6th) - nearly ten months after it debuted at Sundance and was sold (by Cinetic) to Lionsgate.
In the wake of a triple award win at Sundance, recent audience prizes at fests in Toronto and Chicago, rousing screenings in Cannes and at the New York Film Festival, intensifying awards season buzz, and now a 5,600 word cover profile in yesterday's New York Times Magazine, hopes for the film keep getting bigger. But, can it meet these increased expectations?
It was January 16th back at Sundance this year, the first Friday of the festival, and in an aisle seat at the Racquet Club theater, I noticed "Precious" director Lee Daniels, and I noticed he wasn't talking to anyone - just staring straight ahead. Nearby, against a wall with colleagues, was John Sloss. As the screening time approached, there was a strange lack of urgency to start the showing. A bit of a drama was unfolding behind the scenes because across town a delayed screening of Antoine Fuqua's "Brooklyn's Finest" at another Sundance venue was holding up some buyers. Sundance festival folks seemed anxious to get the movie started, but Lee, Sloss & company were stalling. I chatted with Lee who seemed cautiously optimistic about his new movie, but he and his reps feared that a bad first showing at Sundance - without the expected acquisitions execs in place for the whole film - would damage their chances for the right deal.
In the wake of his directorial debut, "Shadowboxer," Daniels was facing skeptical industry and critics. But, he believed passionately in "Precious" (then known as "Push"). I recall that I described the film in a blog post that it was a story of a morbidly obese, sexually abused Harlem girl, flanked on screen by the likes of comedian Mo'Nique as a drugged out mom, rocker Lenny Kravitz as a male nurse, and pop diva Mariah Carey as a social worker. It seemed on the surface like a recipe for disaster. Well, it wasn't. Not by a long shot. Lee's new film really struck a chord. After the screening I asked him simply, "What have you done?!" He's woven saturated dream sequences, standout performances, distinctive music, and striking visuals into a compelling new American drama. I'm a fan of this at times over the top story of a struggling young woman. But, I also know people who aren't, and as "Precious" gains momentum, there could be a backlash.
At a recent Hamptons International Film Festival panel, critic Thelma Adams called the movie "a minstrel show," aligning herself with the apparent disdain of fellow critic Armond White. And an indieWIRE survey of a few critics and bloggers during the recent New York Film Festival found grades running the gamut: An 'A' from the New York Post's Lou Lumenick, an 'A-minus' from Time Out New York's David Fear, a 'B-plus' from Film Comment's Amy Taubin and Caryn James (The Daily Beast and Marie Claire), a 'C-minus' from online journalist Karina Longworth and U.S. Weekly's aforementioned Thelma Adams.
"Is America ready for a movie about an obese Harlem girl raped and impregnated by her abusive father?" asked a New York Times headline this week. "Why would anyone care about a poor, 300-pound, uneducated black girl as dark as night?," Lee Daniels rhetorically asked in indieWIRE's pre-Sundance profile. "The answer to this question is what this film is ultimately about."
So, now I wonder, will the desire to 'see it for yourself' drive the movie to mainstream success?
Bolstered by a pair of pre-Sundance screenings -- a family and friends showing at Technicolor in early January and then a Harlem screening for regular moviegoers at the Magic Johnson theater right before the Park City debut -- they knew the movie could play. Sloss told me that at the Harlem screening yielded an 80% 'definite recommend' rating). Cinetic wisely took the movie to Tyler Perry who then enlisted Oprah Winfrey before Park City, and by the time that the film was honored with the three Sundance awards, they had Winfrey's support in their back pocket. A $5.5 million deal with Lionsgate followed within a week. A "60 Minutes" profile of Tyler Perry, who is presenting the movie with Winfrey, touted the pact Sunday night on the CBS news program.
Will "Precious" make $1 Million or $100 Million at the box office? It'll likely land somewhere in between, but where? And what about the persistent whispers that the movie is "too urban"? (What does that really mean anyway?) A tough story, with an all black cast set in Harlem, was judged by many in the industry as too much for mainstream audiences to handle. But, watch it with an audience. "Precious" is a movie that clearly speaks to people.
And yet, what does it mean that a good friend, who works in Hollywood, hadn't heard of the movie when I asked him about it yesterday?
Tyler Perry's tremendous success at Lionsgate, generally unheralded in the mainstream media, could be the key to this film finding its way (and of course, Oprah's influential blessing certainly won't hurt). Perry's core audience, as detailed on "60 Minutes" is older and female (and black), a group that could connect with "Precious." Perry is looking to his so-called "chitlin circuit" (as he called it on CBS) for support. But, will the movie go beyond its base? Friends of mine have noted that the movie will play in the gay community.
"My favorite color is florescent beige" is just one catchy phrase from the film's melodramatic early trailer.
It's been amazing to observe "Precious" build from a pre-Sundance buzz that challenged early notions. It caught on quickly in Park City. Even as some buyers worried that the movie couldn't cross over, Harvey Weinstein and Lionsgate each made a passionate push for "Precious" (a lawsuit emerged, but was later resolved). Insiders said the film wouldn't sell internationally (again it was supposedly "too black"), yet Elephant Eye closed worldwide distribution deals for the movie at the markets in Berlin and Cannes. The head of a rival distributor seemed in awe of the success of the film, so far, recently admitting to me that his company didn't know how to reach the audience that Lionsgate will court for "Precious." Few companies and filmmakers have built a career within the black community the way that Tyler Perry and Lionsgate have.
"Precious" is already an incredible success story, made for $10 million with an eclectic, all-black cast. But, expectations continue to grow and clearly it will be considered a disappointment if it doesn't play well in theaters all around the country and then score major Oscar nominations.
I spoke with Lee Daniels over the weekend, in the wake of increased attention from New York Times Magazine profile. Lee is in the firing line on this film, having raised the budget entirely independently (way outside the Hollywood system), then making the movie "his way," and afterward turning to pillars from his community for support. And now, he's sounding as confident and cautiously optimistic as he was when he was sitting alone quietly right before the film's Sundance debut.
What happens to "Precious" over the next few months will be as interesting to watch as what has happened to it since that Friday night screening at the Racquet Club theater in Park City, Utah.
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