Earning kudos but not cash Puzzle: 'Love Jones' seemed to be the very movie black audiences had been demanding, but it didn't do that well at the box office.

January 25, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

When "Love Jones" opened in theaters last March, it didn't lack for buzz. It had shared the Sundance Film Festival audience award with "In the Company of Men," and it was being released by New Line Cinema, whose marketing miracles have included "The Mask," "Seven" and "Austin Powers."

But despite stars Nia Long and Larenz Tate, its low-key urban love story and its stylish look, the film grossed only $12 million after two months in theaters.

Some African-American critics complained that black audiences were shunning the very films they had been demanding for years -- films that didn't focus on farcical sexuality or social pathology.

Author Keisha A. Sayliss complained to the Boston Globe that if African-Americans don't show up at movies like "Love Jones," they will disappear.

"Hollywood isn't making these films to make us feel good about ourselves," she said.

But Charles Robinson, president of Triad Communications, a film marketing firm, thinks the film floundered for lack of correct marketing. "To categorically make this statement that blacks don't support certain kinds of films is too cut and dried," he says. "When other films don't work, they don't say that the white audience doesn't turn out."

Ask the guy who made the film, and you get a combination of both answers.

First-time director Theodore Witcher doesn't blame the audience much as the fact that "Love Jones," which took place in Chicago's hip poetry-coffeehouse scene, was simply too unfamiliar for black audiences to get a handle on.

"I don't know if people could make heads or tails of it, or if it was so different than what they were used to," Witcher said from his home in Los Angeles recently. "I don't think any of the [advertising] materials hinted at the poetry and coffeehouse stuff, [or] that there were overtly recognizable black types that .. people could identify with, good or bad. We chose to just sell it as a love story, and the fact that it may not have been enough speaks to some larger issues about the society that we live in."

Witcher adds that "Love Jones" not only opened against the re-release of "The Return of the Jedi" but that "Booty Call," which made $20 million at the box office, was on screens as well.

However, "Love Jones" wasn't a total wash. Robert Shaye, chairman and CEO of New Line Cinema, which produced and distributed "Love Jones," notes that the studio broke even on the movie, "so at least we didn't overspend."

Unlike "Soul Food," which would prove so successful months later, " 'Love Jones' wasn't a broad-based, fun movie," says Shaye. "It was thoughtful. Poetry is a hard thing to sell. It was a little bit of a soft movie. It didn't smack you over the head in three minutes."

Still, Shaye insists, "I frankly am much more proud of and can stand up for 'Love Jones' than I could for 'B.A.P.S.,' which was a misconceived attempt to be entertaining," he says. "Even though it was more expensive to produce than 'Love Jones,' in terms of vindicating our ideas, 'Love Jones' was more successful than a film like 'B.A.P.S.' "

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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