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'Straight Outta Compton,' Tough Calls and Deja Vu All Over Again

9 Dec, 2015 By: Stephen Einhorn

Universal Pictures’ Straight Outta Compton (arriving on Blu-ray Jan. 19) is closing in on $161.1 million in domestic box office after an Aug. 14, 2015, initial release and a $60.2 million opening weekend. 

The trades reported the biographical drama, directed by F. Gary Gray, was in development for years shepherded by Toby Emmerich, president of Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema unit, but despite his best efforts, the film was reluctantly let go to Universal because of fears that the $29 million budget was too high (see Hollywood Reporter: “Warner Bros’ Chilly Summer”).

Given the film’s subject matter, I speculate executives thought the film only appealed to a niche audience. In addition, considering the dark, deeply dramatic story and limited international appeal, it is not surprising WB executives were leery of the project especially since — and this is my supposition — they probably did not have a strong positive vision for the project’s breakout and upside potential.

As it relates to the breadth and depth of a film’s appeal with urban African-American storylines, it is certainly not the first time a studio has grappled with this difficult analysis. New Line Cinema released the cult classic film Friday on April 26, 1995. Directed by Gray (his first film) on a $3 million budget, the film generated a respectable $27.5 million in 1995 box office dollars. The film did not receive a full national release and instead was solely focused on urban markets. The cast included Ice Cube (his first film), Chris Tucker, John Witherspoon, Nia Long, Tiny Lister, Paula Jai Parker and Bernie Mac. 

New Line Cinema, under head of production Michael Deluca, produced over a period of time a fairly extensive library of mixed-genre urban-market films. This, in effect, was sufficient for New Line Home Entertainment to create, stock and promote entire urban title sections and garner shelf space at selected chain stores and mass-merchant locations. These titles included, among others, the “House Party” films, Hangin’ With the Homeboys, Deep Cover, Menace II Society, Above the Rim, Friday, Love Jones and The Players Club. The titles were selling extremely well along with their coinciding soundtrack albums. It became clear to New Line Home Entertainment that the market for these films had expanded way beyond niche urban audiences.

By March 1998, Friday was a certified home video hit. It had been a top 50 home video sellthrough title for more than a year, with sales exceeding 500,000 units at a high $19.98 list price and also sold more than 400,000 units through the Columbia House Video Club. Soundtrack sales exceeded 2 million units. The film’s profitability was close to $20 million and home video represented close to $12 million of that amount, which at that time was groundbreaking. Friday’s home entertainment performance clearly proved there was an audience for comedies about urban African-American life.

It was very obvious to me there was an untapped market for a Friday sequel. I sent a proposal to Deluca and the head of theatrical distribution. Deluca got my message and immediately understood the potential market. He was able to sign on Ice Cube to write and produce Next Friday. The sequel still had hurdles to overcome. From a historical perspective, most popular African-American young-adult-oriented films topped out at around $35 million at the box office. By this time, Tucker, a key cast member, was a huge success in Rush Hour and now out of budget range. Given how the projected budget was escalating to about $11 million, combined with a full national release and P&A spend, the film was certainly not without risk.

But Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, New Line Cinema’s co-chairmen, took a chance. New Line Cinema, an independent theatrical distributor, as an operating and marketing strategy, needed to stay very close to and have a strong understanding of potential marketplace niches and a vision for where we might find upside that the major studios did not see or have the interest in exploiting.

The gamble paid off. Next Friday was released on Jan. 14, 2000, with a $17 million opening weekend on 1,100 screens and ultimately generated $57.1 million dollars in domestic box office.


Stephen Einhorn is the former president of New Line Home Entertainment.

About the Author: Stephen Einhorn

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