Two years ago, rom-com “Think Like a Man” (based on the Steve Harvey book “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man”) hit theaters and stunned Hollywood. The film — with an ensemble cast including Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson and Gabrielle Union — blew away the box office competition. It raked in $33 million on opening weekend and knocked down “The Hunger Games,” which had been the reigning No. 1 champ for weeks.
Why was that so shocking? For the same reason people in the film industry were taken aback when movies as varied as “Bridesmaids,” “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and even “Superbad” also did extremely well at the box office. It’s become common knowledge to movie fans and box office forecasters: Whenever an entertaining movie aimed at a minority or niche audience (from race to gender to age) succeeds, people are quick to deem it a “surprise hit.”
All of the movies above, which range from 2000 to present day, were described with that phrase. And now, the question may come up again this weekend, as “Think Like a Man Too” — the sequel to the 2012 smash — is released in theaters. So, has any of that box office thinking really changed since “Think Like a Man” debuted? Or will Hollywood still be shocked if a solid film aimed at an underserved community finds an audience?
Maybe there won’t be much of a surprise for this particular flick. Thanks to the original, experts are expecting this movie to do well: Projections estimate that it will earn $32 million this weekend. There’s also the fact that “Think Like a Man’s” success has been been very thoroughly dissected, spawning many think pieces about its “surprise hit” stature.
“There’s an obvious, unspoken truth in the movie making business. As soon as you cast black actors in your leads, suddenly, you have a black film, narrowing its projected audience and draw,” wrote Matt Patches on Hollywood.com. “Not so for ‘Think Like a Man’ — and response from Screen Gems makes it clear that they knew that from the beginning. The savvy studio knew they had something broader on their hands. Not a black comedy, but a straight up, hilarious rom-com.”
One blogger blamed studios marketing priorities: “The assumption that such movies have limited appeal turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when they don’t receive the same exposure to a broad range of audiences as comparable movies with predominantly or all white casts.” Another summed up many reactions: “There aren’t many films that are made specifically for African-American audiences, and when it a good one comes out, that community gets behind it in a big way,” said the editor BoxOffice.com.
Still, even if “Think Like a Man Too” is projected to succeed this time around, let’s take a closer look at some movies that have been released since the original film — unfortunately, many have gotten the same “surprise” treatment.
African American-targeted films including “Lee Daniels’ The Butler, “42″ and “The Best Man Holiday” from last year all exceeded expectations — and landed on lists called “The Box-Office Surprises of 2013.” So did the Mexican comedy “Instructions Not Included,” which had many scratching their heads at how a Spanish-language film could shatter box office records. And so people continue to learn the lesson that when there aren’t a lot movies made for a specific audience the community will turn out in droves to see the film.
As many have noticed, movies aimed at women get very similar reactions. Along with “Bridesmaids,” other films that have “stunned” film executives with box office power include “Bring It On,” “Juno” and even now-classics such as “Sleepless in Seattle” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Last year, the Melissa McCarthy-Sandra Bullock flick “The Heat” did very well, as did McCarthy’s “Identity Thief,” though some pundits did not expect either film to do as well as it did. As film critic Mark Harris dryly tweeted, “‘The Heat’ is a “surprise” hit only if you’re surprised that women exist.”
Even teens are considered an underserved market — at least, with non-blockbuster films. In 2007, high school comedy “SuperBad” captured the hearts of teenage boys everywhere, without a superhero in sight — something that many adults in the entertainment industry didn’t see happening. Same with teenage girls and Emma Stone’s “Easy A” in 2010. And this month, teen cancer drama “The Fault in Our Stars” racked up $58 million. Even knowing how incredibly popular the book was for years, many grown-ups still didn’t expect it to make that much money.
Some are banking on the “surprise hit” trend to change course. Earlier this year, Forbes writer Scott Mendelson noted that Kevin Hart and Ice Cube’s “Ride Along” made lots of money, and while many people underestimated how much it would make, lots of box office forecasters predicted it would be No. 1. Mendelson cited the “‘surprise’ and/or ‘shock’ that seems to occur nearly any time a major black-centric film opens above $15m.”
“The fact that absolutely no one was surprised by the success of Ice Cube and Kevin Hart’s ‘Ride Along’ is important and just a little bit promising,” Mendelson wrote. “If films like ‘Ride Along’ or ‘The Best Man Holiday‘ begin to be expected to become box office successes, then they won’t be seen as outside-the-box projects in the eyes of the studios that finance them.”