Hip-hop at the movies: rappers produce reel profits on the silver screen – The hip-hop economy: part 2 of a series

Hip-hop at the movies: rappers produce reel profits on the silver screen – The hip-hop economy: part 2 of a series – Industry Overview

Sakina P. Spruell

FADE IN: THE EXTERIOR OF A MOVIE THEATER AT A SUBURBAN MALL. SCORES OF young black and white moviegoers stand in a block-long line, anxiously waiting to see the latest action-adventure flick. The movie is Exit Wounds, a cops-and-drug-dealers shoot ’em up. Not surprisingly, the film features martial artist Steven Seagal. But this time the audience is not buying tickets to see the action icon. They’ve come for the star who shares top billing: DMX, the craggy-voiced, chart-busting rapper who possesses much attitude–and fans to boot.

When the film was released last year. DMX had produced more action off screen. Exit Wounds, budgeted at $20 million, grossed $52 million in domestic box office receipts and another $34.2 million in video rentals. As a result. DMX, a platinum-selling hip-hop artist, emerged as a bona fide action hero, which is clear by his recent movie offers and $4 million asking price.

DMX represents the latest wave of hip-hop artists who have taken Hollywood by storm. This summer, and in months to come, expect a repeat of Exit Wounds’ success as long lines of young fans wait to see the next film spotlighting rappers who moonlight as actors. Hip-hop artists such as Ja Rule, Naughty By Nature’s Treach, Busta Rhymes, Queen Latifah, Lil’ Bow Wow. and LL Cool J will be coming to a theater near you in everything from thrillers to romantic comedies. Why are these performers getting so much screen time? They sell tickets–loads of them.

As part of BLACK ENTERPRISE’S series on the Hip-Hop Economy, this second installment explores the culture’s expanding influence on the $8.4 billion movie industry. In a business where studio execs covet a sure thing, hip-hop artists bring hordes of young black, white, and Latino moviegoers to urban and suburban theaters. In fact, hip-hop artists have appeared in some of the highest grossing and most profitable films in Hollywood (see chart). “Studios are finding out that rappers have a persona and a built-in following.” says Ben Ramsey, a movie director who uses hip-hop artists in his films.

Moreover, rappers usually appear on a film’s sound track, enabling producers to use hip-hop music to market the movie as well us generate hefty ancillary revenues through CD sales (see chart). Asserts filmmaker Michael McCants about the tie-in between marketing and casting: “[Studios] get to knock off two birds with one stone.”

LIGHTS! CAMERA! RAPPERS!

Hip-hop’s influence on film can be traced as tar back as 1982 when the rap classic Wild Style, starring Fab Five Freddy and the Rock Steady Crew, was released. But movies didn’t become a commercial vehicle for hip-hop artists until 1985 with the release of Krush Groove. Loosely based on the genesis of rap mogul Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Records, the movie was designed, in part, to promote then-fledgling acts LL Cool J and Run-DMC. The movie’s smash success was quickly followed by such fare as Beat Street, which featured Doug E. Fresh and DJ Kool Herc, and Disorderlies, which starred the Fat Boys in a hip-hop equivalent of The Three Stooges. Those films, however, were mostly targeted to African American audiences. And at that point, hip-hop’s impact on mainstream films had been limited to rap music featured on motion picture sound tracks.

Then in 1990 House Party, which starred the high-spirited and lively Kid ‘n Play, demonstrated the mass appeal and cinematic reach of the hip-hop community. Released by New Line Cinema, the teen film grossed more than $26 million on a $2.5 million budget. Not bad considering director Reginald Hudlin had to persuade rap-shy executives to cast the hip-hop duo.

Movies such as House Party and a string of films set in the hood, including Juice, New Jack City, and Boyz N the Hood, turned into a profitable market. House Party 2 and 3 made more than $19 million each. The series still lives on in the direct-to-video market with House Party 4. in which the now-geriatric Kid ‘n Play have been replaced by the youthful R&B act IMX.

Over the last decade, studio executives have not only become more comfortable with casting rappers, they’ve become downright insistent. Hip-hop artists give films a built-in audience, as did former football stars Fred Williamson and Jim Brown for ’70s “blaxploitation” films, and comedians Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Whoopi Goldberg for comedies during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Rappers, however, bring the Hip-Hop Economy–a worldwide multicultural youth segment. And it is the audience that movie studios live and die by.

For filmmakers, the added bonus of using hip-hop acts is that, as a result of creating personas through music videos, a number of rappers have developed substantial acting chops. “In the case of Kid ‘n Play. they had what I think rap tends to have an abundance of–natural actors,” says Hudlin. “Rapping [requires] a lot of the same talents that you look for in a good actor.”

STEALING THE SHOW

Today hip-hop is having such an impact on the movie industry that inclusion of a rap artist may mean the difference between a studio executive green lighting a film or shelving a project. This summer, for example, Screen Gems is releasing the crime drama Love and a Bullet as a vehicle for Treach, who co-starred in the 1994 film Jason’s Lyric. “Having Treach absolutely helped to get Screen Gems to pick up the movie,” says Ramsey, co-director of the independent project.

Some hip-hop performers are such hot commodities, they’ve become mainstream stars in their own right. Take Will Smith, the artist formerly known as The Fresh Prince. Since starring in the 1996 sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day, his films have grossed close to $1 billion. Smith’s success has put him among black acting’s elite alongside the likes of Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Halle Berry. His star power has also made him a member of the $20 million club–a cadre of actors like Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Julia Roberts who receive that sum per film. To top it off, Smith recently received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali–a feat never before achieved by a hip-hop artist. In addition, Smith creates marketing fodder for his film bit producing songs tied to his movies. To promote Men In II, he is producing a new single, Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head). He took a similar approach when the first Men In Black movie and Wild Wild West were released, producing singles for both movie sound tracks.

Since Smith is a megastar, he can command top dollar in salary and budget on any project he wants. Other hip-hop artists may not have the same level of clout but have demonstrated the ability to flex their muscle in Hollywood. Rap veteran LL Cool J has developed an celluloid track record over the last decade. In addition to a television series, In the House, he has appeared in some 19 films ranging from targeted fare such as In Too Deep and Kingdom Come to mainstream films like Any Given Sunday and Deep Sea. Now, LL has entered into an exclusive group of performers who instill confidence in filmmakers and studio execs alike. Maintains Gary Hardwick, who directed LL in episodes of In the House and the new the romantic comedy Deliver Us From Eva: “When I brought the film to New Line, I already had [actress] Gabrielle Union, but they didn’t agree to take on the project until I got LL Cool J.”

What makes actors such as Smith, LL, and Queen Latifah so accessible isn’t just their music, but the fact that millions of viewers got to know them when they were beamed into homes week after week on sitcoms. “In the beginning, LL Cool J was a rapper who started acting,” says Hardwick. “Now, he’s an actor who used to rap.” The same is true for hip-hop’s royal highness Queen Latifah, who co-starred on the hit TV series Living Single and in the 1996 film Set it Off. Latifah, the lone female of this trend, later went on to host her own talk show but may have found her niche in films. She’s co-starring in In the Houze, a comedy with Steve Martin slated for release next year.

Toby Emmerich, president of production of New Line Cinema. which has probably released more movies featuring rap artists or focused on the hip-hop culture more than any major studio: “Hip-hop is more mainstream than ever before, and we are seeing studios spending more on these types of films.”

COOL RAPPER, HOT PROPERTY

New Line has developed an extremely profitable relationship with Ice Cube, the edgy Priority Records hip-hop artist who developed a solid reputation as a topflight screenwriter and actor. New Line signed a multi-picture deal with the former NWA front man. The first Film, Friday, was a huge commercial success. Budgeted at a miniscule $3.5 million. Friday grossed an impressive $27 million when it was released in 1995. The sequel, Next Friday, budgeted at $9.5 million, produced even greater ticket sales, taking in $57 million at the box office.

Because of the success of those movies, Ice Cube’s production company, Cube Vision, has been able to snare some of the biggest budgets to produce movies aimed at African Americans. New Line spent $22.9 million to make the action comedy, AU About the Benjamins, which like the Friday trilogy, was produced by and starred Ice Cube. In its first two weeks Benjamins grossed $18 million. “Cube brought that to us as a complete film,” says Emmerich. “He said, `Here is the script. I want Kevin Bray to direct. Are you guys in?'”

Ice Cube’s upcoming Friday After Next has a budget exceeding the gross profits of Next Friday. New Line plans to spend north of $60 million to make and market the film, which is scheduled for release in November release. The studio upped the ante because Ice Cube’s success rate is so high. “Cube has a .750 batting average. In baseball, if you bat a .400, you ate going to the hall of fame. A guy like that you want to keep saying yes to,” says Emmerich. Universal has been following the trend by attempting to mine such potential in Def Jam artists Method Man and Redman. (The company provided a $12 million bankroll for the duo’s Film How High, which grossed $31 million when it was released earlier this year.)

FIGHTING THE POWER

But Ice Cube is clearly an exception to the rule. Hollywood studios are still resistant to giving African American filmmakers the benjamins they need for film production and marketing–rappers or not. Love and a Bullet’s Ramsey says hip-hop artists don’t always translate into financing. “We put up the budget out of our pockets.” he says. “Screen Gems just stepped in and bought and distributed it.”

Veteran filmmaker Ernest Dickerson’s challenge was gaining a sufficient marketing push to ensure that Bones, a horror film starring rapper Snoop Dogg, was a hit. “The budget for Bones was $10 million, and it grossed around $2.5 [million opening weekend],” says Dickerson, who also wrote and directed Juice. New Line’s marketing execs, he maintains, took the approach of, “Put a rapper in a film, and the audience will come.” But this field-of-dreams strategy left theaters with empty seats since fans didn’t know Bones had been released, says Dickerson. “I had people call me weeks after the film was out of the theater and ask me when is the movie coming out.”

In defending New Line’s strategy, Emmerich says it “tested the movie, and the only audiences that really liked and supported Bones tended to be younger African Americans.” As a result, the movie received weak marketing support and limited theater release.

The films that produce the greatest commercial success are those that make full use of a hip-hop artist’s celebrity and talent. For example, when Warner Bros. marketed Exit Wounds, not only did the studio prominently feature DMX in the film’s trailer and on the poster (above Steven Seagal) it also used the rapper’s hit single, No Sunshine, in television commercials and featured the music video on DVD and VHS versions of the movie.

Rapper-entrepreneurs such as No Limit’s Master P and Roc-A-Fella’s Jay-Z and Damon Dash produce movies, most of which are direct-to-video, as another means of marketing their roster of artists, ancillary products, and apparel (see the first part of this series, “Hip-Hop Economy,” May 2002.)

In assessing the infusion of hip-hop into the motion picture industry, Hardwick maintains that many studio executives will continue to view a rapper who sells 30 million records as more marketable than a more talented actor. `That is the nature of the business,” Hardwick asserts. “It’s our job [as filmmakers] to keep them aware of the art.”

Fade to black.

It’s A Rap

Top 25 Films Featuring Hip-Hop Artists

No. Film Artist Studio

1 Independence Day Will Smith Fox

2 Men In Black Will Smith Sony

3 The Fast & the Furious Ja Rule Universal

4 Wild Wild West Will Smith Warner Bros.

5 Enemy of the State Will Smith Buena Vista

6 Save the Last Dance Fredro Starr Paramount

7 Any Given Sunday LL Cool J Warner Bros.

8 Deep Blue Sea LL Cool J Warner Bros.

9 Shaft Busta Rhymes Paramount

10 The Bone Collector Queen Latifah Universal

11 Anaconda Ice Cube Sony

12 Bad Boys Will Smith Sony

13 Three Kings Ice Cube Warner Bros.

14 Ali Will Smith Sony

15 Boyz N the Hood Ice Cube Columbia

16 Next Friday Ice Cube New Line

17 Romeo Must Die DMX Warner Bros.

18 Halloween: H2O LL Cool J Miramax

19 Finding Forrester Busta Rhymes Sony

20 Exit Wounds DMX Warner Bros.

21 New Jack City Ice T Warner Bros.

22 Higher Learning Ice Cube/ Sony

Busta Ryhmes

23 Set It Off Queen Latifah New Line

24 How High Method Man/ Universal

Redman

25 Monster’s Ball P. Diddy Lionsgate

No. Film Year Gross *

1 Independence Day 1996 $306

2 Men In Black 1997 251

3 The Fast & the Furious 2001 145

4 Wild Wild West 1999 114

5 Enemy of the State 1999 112

6 Save the Last Dance 2001 91

7 Any Given Sunday 2000 76

8 Deep Blue Sea 1999 74

9 Shaft 2000 70

10 The Bone Collector 1999 67

11 Anaconda 1997 66

12 Bad Boys 1995 66

13 Three Kings 1999 61

14 Ali 1995 58

15 Boyz N the Hood 1991 58

16 Next Friday 2000 57

17 Romeo Must Die 2000 56

18 Halloween: H20 1998 55

19 Finding Forrester 2000 52

20 Exit Wounds 2001 52

21 New Jack City 1990 48

22 Higher Learning 1995 38

23 Set It Off 1997 36

24 How High 2002 31

25 Monster’s Ball 2002 31

* DOMESTIC IN MILLIONS OF DOLLARS

SOURCE www.variety.com

SET IT OFF

BUDGET: $9 MILLION

GROSS: $36 MILLION

PROFIT %: 75%

BONES

BUDGET: $10 MILLION

GROSS: $7.3 MILLION

PROFIT %: -36%

DEEP BLUE SEA

BUDGET: $60 MILLION

GROSS: $73.6 MILLION

PROFIT %: 18.5%

NEW JACK CITY

BUDGET: $8.5 MILLION

GROSS: $47.6 MILLION

PROFIT %: 82%

HOW HIGH

BUDGET: $12 MILLION

GROSS: $31.2 MILLION

PROFIT %: 61.5%

BOYZ `N THE HOOD

BUDGET: $6 MILLION

GROSS: $57.5 MILLION

PROFIT %: 89.6%

FRIDAY

BUDGET: $3.5 MILLION

GROSS: $27.4 MILLION

PROFIT %: 87.2%

HOUSE PARTY

BUDGET: $2.5 MILLION

GROSS: $26.4 MILLION

PROFIT %: 90.5%

EXIT WOUNDS

BUDGET: $33 MILLION

GROSS: $51.8 MILLION

PROFIT %: 36.3%

COPYRIGHT 2002 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group