Was Spike Lee's "The Original Kings of Comedy" red-lined? Lee doesn't think so. His concert film starring four black comedians opened last Aug. 18 to astonishingly good business, and some believed it was prevented from winning the number one spot at the nation's box office because it was released on only 847 screens, grossing $11 million. The weekend's winner, "The Cell," was on 2,411 screens, grossing $17.5 million.
At the time there were rumblings that Paramount, distributor of the "Kings," had crippled its chances by targeting theaters popular with black audiences. The movie starred comedians, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric The Entertainer and Bernie Mac, whose concert tour has been one of the top-grossing arena shows of recent years. But they were little known to white audiences, and Paramount said it planned to gradually widen the film's release.
"Paramount considers it a small picture and believes it should be treated like a small picture," Walter Latham, co-producer of "Original Kings," complained at the time to TV Guide. "Why? Because it's black actors who they've never heard of and it's a 'black' film and should be treated like a 'black' film."
But Spike Lee now says, "I agreed with Paramount on this. The number of theatres we had was right for this film, in order to maximize the profit. When you make more prints you've got to pay for those prints, you've got to pay for advertising. To play 2,000 screens you've got to play places like Des Moines, Timbuktu... It was debatable whether this film could play in those places."
Lee said people came up to him on the street, saying, "If you'd been on as many screens as 'The Cell,' you'd be number one!"
"But the film's gonna end up making over $40 million domestically and it only cost $3 million," Lee told me. "In a lot of ways, the per-screen average tells you more than the total gross. New Line was spending a ton of money to promote and market "The Cell," because that movie cost $50 million. Paramount bought "Original Kings" from Walter Latham and MTV films, and I think they asked themselves, why should we spend 10 times the money to promote it than we spent to purchase it?"
Lee and Paramount have the last laugh: Both films will end up grossing about the same.