NEW YORK No matter how many millions Spike Lee spends on his film biography of black activist Malcolm X, he'll make even more millions at the box office.
And more still if he can just master Hollywood merchandising the way he mastered Hollywood filmmaking.
Lee has been a hit pitching Nike sneakers and Levi's 501 jeans in advertisements, but he's not making the money he could off a sportswear item of his own creation: the X-cap.
Prospective buyers come to Spike's Joint, his Brooklyn store, from as far away as Tokyo and as near as Flatbush Avenue to purchase the $17.50 X-cap Lee has worn on television and in public since last winter. But this is about all the Spike's Joint salespeople can say to them when they walk in waving fists full of dollars: "You can't get them from here."
Visiting Spike's Joint and discovering the store is out of X-caps is like walking out the theater after one of Lee's movies the buildup is so great that the real thing disappoints.
You are free to browse through the remaining Spike's Joint collectibles: clothes and accessories ranging from 50 cents to $375 all inspired by Lee's films
"Mo' Better Blues" postcards they have. "Do The Right Thing" sweat shirts they have. "School Daze" key rings they have. But X-caps trumpeting the soon to be written portrayal of Malcolm X? They don't have.
Knockoffs of the genuine X-cap sell for as little as $5 and no more than $10. Party stores and souvenir booths all over have them.
So how come Spike's Joint doesn't?
"The X-cap is a phenomenal seller," said Earl Smith, a boyhood chum of Lee's who now co-manages Spike's Joint. "It sells in equal amounts of both styles. The white one sells the best in the summertime, but we sell a lot of black style, too."
In spite of the militancy of Malcolm X evoked by the X-cap, it's an attractive commodity to both blacks and whites alike. It's got street chic styling, and it's made of quality materials.
The X-cap, the co-managers of Spike's Joint realize, is simple to counterfeit.
"It concerns us, but nobody has a patent on the X," Smith said. "People know Spike's going to do the movie and that Spike's hat is the real X-hat. So they're going to come into Spike's Joint for it or they're going to call in and mail order it. The individual has to care about having the authentic merchandise. If they care about having that, they'll come get it from us. Either they want to be down with us with respect to that or they don't."
It may have been ingenious of Lee to use X-caps to drum up interest in his next film project. But by the time the film goes into production, X-wear already may have gone the way of Batman and Bart Simpson T-shirts.
Of course, the scarcity of X-caps in Lee's shop isn't his fault alone. He's far too busy with multimillion-dollar film negotiations to concern himself with the notebook full of names on the "X" cap waiting list, and he only visits the shop operated by his boyhood chums once a week at the most.
"When people look up and realize he's in here, all of a sudden postcard sales go up dramatically," Smith said.