Religious leader Bishop T.D. Jakes manages to get about 30,000 bodies in one place for his foot-tapping, soul-stirring church services in Dallas each Sunday morning. So when the time came to assist in the marketing of his newly produced film Jumping the Broom, Jakes had a few tricks up his sleeve.
From P. Diddy to megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, no one was safe from a T.D. Jakes telephone call asking for a favor for his film.
"I've made a few good friends over the years," says Jakes with a laugh on the phone from his Texas home. "And when you develop the solid relationships that I have with good people, you know you can call whenever you need them."
Much to the Bishop's delight, P. Diddy tweeted to his 3.6 million followers one day, while Joel Osteen tweeted to his nearly quarter-million followers another, asking them to support their buddy's new film. Jakes also tweeted details to his nearly 700,000 followers for weeks in advance about the romantic, feel-good movie produced by his TDJ Enterprises in conjunction with Sony Pictures.
The viral campaign did its job. Jumping the Broom opened at a healthy $15.2 million last weekend, trumping Kate Hudson's Something Borrowed, a movie that received loads more publicity and cost $30 million more to make. Jumping the Broom debuted at No. 3, behind big budget films Thor and Fast Five.
The final tally for the film's first weekend wasn't fully realized until Monday, the result of an unexpected Sunday afternoon surge of African-American moviegoers.
"I never really thought it would be a big deal showing different types of people in the black community," says co-star Paula Patton. "But that's what people love about this movie because they don't see it enough.
"A lot of African-American families can't go after work on Friday—too tired," says Jakes. "And they don't go to the theaters on Saturday night because they're getting ready for church. So Sunday after church makes perfect sense. Obviously, it's not normal by Hollywood standards, but it worked for us."
The savvy marketing plan and a well-known cast that included Angela Bassett and Paula Patton went a long way in helping the $6.6 million film outperform its more formidable competitors like Something Borrowed.
Sony worked closely with Jakes to appeal to the faith-based community, which has become a standard path for movies perceived as having appeal to churchgoers. To guarantee word of mouth would be strong, screenings were held for hairdressers and barbers, pastors and deacons, and local churches weeks before the film's release.
"Am I surprised it did well, no," says Jakes. "But I'm happy the numbers are even better than expected. I know that doesn't always happen with African-American films these days."
Yes, with the exception of Tyler Perry's Madea franchise, African-American films have struggled to make even the smallest dent at the box office. Last year's Just Wright and Our Family Wedding failed miserably, resulting in a number of major studios deciding to postpone or cancel plans for upcoming African-American projects.
"We all know that only two studios in Hollywood make African-American films at this point," said a well-known producer. "Sony and Lionsgate. No other company will greenlight a black film today."
Conventional wisdom might suggest that Jumping the Broom's respectable box office showing would convince Hollywood to rethink its position on releasing films with a primary black storyline and cast. Though often not major box office hits, the relatively low budget that most African-American movies require seems to justify more films like this one be made. Particularly given the unique ways modern day marketing can be used to reach different demographics.
Not so fast, say some in the industry.
"It doesn't always work that way with African-American films," says DeVon Franklin, vice president of production for Sony Pictures. "We'd like to think that it will make a difference, but I can't predict what the success of this film means right now. But I'm always optimistic that African-American films and black stories will be told somewhere."
Will they? Jeff Friday, president of the American Black Film Festival thinks it's great Jumping the Broom did well, but also wonders why it didn't do a lot better.
"You have an A-list cast—some beautiful people with a great and funny story," says Friday. "So why didn't it make $20 or $25 million? That's my question to the black audience out there today. What does it take to get that audience out to a film if it's not a Tyler Perry film?"
Friday says he's confident that had Perry's name been attached to Jumping the Broom the numbers would have told a completely different story. He says the challenge today for black film directors and studios is to replicate Perry's successful branding of his name in films and TV shows.
"Tyler has done some amazing things in this industry with his work and he deserves respect for that," says Friday. "The rest of us have to figure out a way to get the black audience to see other kind of projects, because just a big star or the promise of a different kind of story doesn't do it today. Black people think of a Tyler Perry movie as an event and get together to go see it."
Talk has recently surfaced that a sequel to the popular 1995 movie Waiting to Exhale is in the works, reuniting cast members like Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett for the film based on Terry McMillan's bestselling book.
The only catch (besides being more than 10 years late) is: Will Houston be in shape to actually film it? (She entered rehab again just this week, after Prince banned from her attending his Los Angeles concerts a few weeks ago. Reportedly, Houston tried to get on stage with Prince at a number of shows and kept requesting dozens of free tickets.)
"People might just go to see how Whitney will do," says Friday.
Still, Jakes' first-look deal with Sony Pictures gives the well-known man of faith the perfect platform to compete with Perry in the world of branding films and TV shows. And the movie's director, Salim Akil, and wife Mara are also in place to create vehicles for black audiences—after the huge success of her recently revived sitcom The Game, Black Entertainment Television announced this week it was entering into a multi-year deal with the couple.
Jumping the Broom star Paula Patton says she chooses to remain hopeful that the film's success will grow over the coming weekend, giving extra incentive to studios to think twice before nixing the next black film.
Fresh from filming Mission Impossible 4 with Tom Cruise, Patton admits it continues to be frustrating finding roles that highlight complex African-American stories and themes.
"That's why it's so great to have this film to do this well and to be a part of it," says Patton. "I never really thought it would be a big deal showing different types of people in the black community. But that's what people love about this movie because they don't see it enough. This film shows everyone. We have to see more films like this one."
Allison Samuels is a senior writer at Newsweek. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, O, Essence and Vibe magazines. She's also the author of Christmas Soul, published by Disney/Jump At the Sun, and Off The Record, (Harper Collins/Amistad).