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Think Like a Man Is the Best-Testing Film in Hollywood — But Can It Win Over Black Men and White Audiences?

Hollywood has great difficulty marketing “female movies” to men, let alone “urban movies” to white audiences — which is why everyone in Hollywood is simultaneously confounded and astonished by the forthcoming Think Like a Man. It’s based on a female self-help book, but it’s a guy’s movie. It has a black cast, but tests through the roof with racially mixed audiences, too. It is, in short, a movie that defies easy pigeonholes — and so now faces a fascinating conundrum: Will its studio be able to convince some audiences to try something they’d instinctively pass up but have been demonstrably proven to like?

It’s a good problem to have, because the upcoming romantic comedy Think Like a Man already has much in its corner: Headlining the movie as one of four guys who turn the tables on their better halves by using the ladies' favorite advice book is Kevin Hart, the hugely charismatic stand-up comedian whose 2011 concert film Laugh at My Pain was a surprise smash. More, Think is based on a best-selling book by popular comedian and talk-show host Steve Harvey, one that serves as the central Art of War used by both genders in the film. Most important, those who have seen the film love it: Audience research numbers leaked to Vulture show that the film has scored some of the highest marks ever recorded at audience research screenings, with 95 percent favorable at a preview in the largely black neighborhood of Inglewood, California, and 99 percent in the more diverse Long Beach area. But that reflects an audience corralled for a free screening: A film that tests this well should be able to bring in general audiences, but this can be difficult as studios tend to shortchange marketing for movies geared to an "urban" audience (as in, movies with an all African-American cast), giving them little promotion.

Yet Sony's Screen Gems, which is distributing the film, has determinedly been waging a steady, grassroots campaign to build interest in Think, with the ambitious goal of going beyond the rom-com's obvious base female African-American audience: They want to not only bring in black males, but also whites, too. Those are two traditionally daunting hurdles: getting men to embrace “female” source material, and white audiences to try “urban” films. But Screen Gems is trying not to think like Hollywood.

The film’s secret weapon, insiders say, has been producer William “Will” Packer — a Hollywood outsider who commutes from Atlanta to Los Angeles almost weekly, but is little known in Hollywood despite the fact that his last three films opened at No. 1 at the box office. For almost half a decade, Packer has been quietly making modest hits with black casts for Screen Gems. He produced the 2007 film Stomp the Yard, a $13 million film that made a hefty $75 million worldwide. Packer then followed it up with Obsessed, a $20 million thriller starring Beyoncé Knowles and Idris Elba that grossed $68 million in theaters, then surprised everyone by selling over 1.2 million copies on DVD, where it made another $20 million. Packer then released Takers, a 2010 Screen Gems crime drama that would gross just shy of $70 million worldwide.

For Think Like a Man, Packer has been quietly and steadily working his keen understanding of black demography and marketing. More than half the nation’s black population lives in the South, and so Packer is shuttling the film and much of its cast to markets where movie stars rarely venture. And while black women would be expected to show, getting men aboard is another matter. And so, Think Like a Man has screened or will be screening at more than a dozen fraternities at historically black colleges and universities, with its talent schlepping to schools like Morehouse in Atlanta, Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, Hampton University in Virginia, and LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis.

In addition, the cast is doing screenings, public appearances, and press days in Chicago’s Cook County (which has the largest black population of any county in the nation), Dallas, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.; and has also held red-carpet screenings at the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival and in Orlando (for the NBA All Star weekend), Atlanta, and of course, New York. The aggressive outreach is working: Almost 85 percent of black audiences are aware of the film, and a whopping 70 percent have “definite interest” in seeing it.

In this respect, Packer is shrewdly taking a page from the outsize success of last summer’s The Help, another “surprise hit” — that is, a surprise to everyone except Disney’s marketers, who engineered it. A marketing insider familiar with The Help campaign tells Vulture that the secret to that film's success was that Disney moved a large percentage of the marketing budget for The Help out of paid media and into screenings, spending three times more than what it usually spent on word-of-mouth showings and red-carpet receptions. “We had to work a fine line with [The Help],” recounts our Disney spy, “It wasn’t super popular with African-American women at first. So while we started with white women 25 and over, we wound up getting black men, too, once we could show them that there was a personal story that related to their grandmothers and in some instances, their mothers’ histories. We had grown black men leaving the theater in tears.”

Of course, despite their predominantly black casts, The Help and Think Like a Man face very different challenges: If The Help had to attract blacks to cross over, Think Like a Man will have to attract whites, a far more difficult task by leaps and bounds. How do you get white audiences to see a film that they are mostly unaware of but that audience research shows they actually love once they see it? The key words being “once they see it.” As of late last week, only slightly more than one in three white moviegoers (37 percent) were aware of the film, and only one in four (23 percent) expressed "definite interest."

Packer has deployed Steve Harvey — a crossover comedian himself thanks to his old sitcom and his regular job as a perpetually shocked Family Feud host — to sell the "everybody's welcome!" message to the general public, sending him out to tub-thump Think Like a Man on CBS’s This Morning and ABC’s The View, shows that Packer explains, “don’t necessarily over-index with African Americans.”

And Screen Gems is working intently to get on board the mainstay of romantic comedy: white women over the age of 30. To do so, it is relying on a TV campaign that marketing experts say is unlike the kind usually given a film with an all-black cast. “I look at the campaign, and I don’t see an ‘ethnic’ campaign,” says one former studio marketing head. “This looks like classic Romantic Comedy 101. In fact, it looks like a Nancy Meyers movie, with black people. Which is fine …. All it has to be is funny, and make it clear that the concept has no race. In this case, it’s a romantic comedy — it has a genre; it doesn’t necessarily have to have a race. And that’s the key to crossing over: What men want or think or feel has no age or race. Look at What Women Want. Or Tootsie. It’s Complicated. Or He’s Just Not That Into You. Is this [movie] probably full of blanket statements and ‘Men are dogs!’ clichés? Sure. But in true romantic comedy, those messages never get old.”

Another studio's marketing president wasn't as convinced by the campaign. “There’s no general audience stuff [in this campaign],” laments the exec. “They’ve done a fabulous job with the urban community. [Black] women will go anyway, and marketing to African-American males makes utter sense. But I think they need to expand that out through the audiences who are most accepting of ‘cross over’ entertainment: white kids, 18 to 24. There’s so much crossover in every other genre of entertainment: sports, music, television — and yet we don’t do that with movies. Why? I have no idea what the answer is, but there’s a bigger question here: Why don’t we make these movies stretch?”

One reason may be what could be termed the Tyler Perry problem: Perry became the highest-paid artist in show business making films with almost entirely black casts that feed African-American stereotypes of black America while simultaneously dining out on them. Thanks to Perry, the sight of a film with an all-black cast practically telegraphs to most white audiences: This isn’t for you.

Still, Packer is reluctant to blame Perry for this. “I don’t think that that’s Tyler’s fault,” he says. “I think he’s shown there’s a lot of money to be made [in that genre], but well before Tyler, the issue existed: Plenty of films with black casts have been made that a lot of people would say are of the highest quality — films that Spike [Lee] has made, for instance — that didn’t cross over. I think it will change. You have to get audiences to try something. We don’t have anything like the Rooney Rule in the NFL, where you have to try to at least interview African-American coaches. But there is a process to get those audiences. It starts with making a film like this, which is broad, smart, and one where there’s no cultural or ethnic specificity that would not be relatable to mainstream Americans — whether they be black, white, green, or purple.”

Of course, stretching any film’s reach beyond its core audience takes both initiative and know-how, but when it comes to marketing a black cast beyond “just” black America, Hollywood is often lost in a forest of its own making: The fact is that it is precisely because black audiences are so wildly underserved by Hollywood that they are usually so reliable when they are served at all.

And this financial reality, says one rival studio’s distribution chief, is exactly why most Hollywood studios don’t usually bother trying to cross over their black films.

“I am sure Sony is struggling with this right now,” says a rival studio’s distribution chief. “If [Sony’s vice chairman] Jeff Blake thinks he can get a general audience, he may decide to chase it. But he also knows that that can get expensive. To get there, do you really want to eat into your margins when you know you already have a film that’s going to be profitable with black audiences?”

Photo: Courtesy of Screen Gems Productions