Media Circus: if it's Wednesday, a black film must be opening

Fearful of audience violence, movie execs have stopped opening "urban" films on Friday. But what qualifies as an "urban" film?

By James Surowiecki

Published August 13, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

last week, I went to my local multiplex to catch the 10 p.m. show of the new Warner Bros. film "187." I'll admit it. I was packing heat, and I was looking for trouble. It didn't take me long to find it. There were crews there from Word and Feed, mouthing off, talking shit. Now, I like those guys personally, but I can only take so much cyber-talk at any one time. So I opened up on them. It was kind of like that scene in "Boyz N the Hood" where the guy fires the Uzi into the air and the crowd scrambles for safety. Granted, I only had one of those Super-Squirters, but it was still like that scene. No one got hit, but everyone ran. Then I was able to enjoy the movie in peace.

As I sat in the theater, much of the quiet elation I felt stemmed from the thought that I had foiled Warner Bros.' earnest effort to protect moviegoers from random violence. Only later did I discover that Warner Bros. had in fact not been engaged in this effort, and that my behavior at the theater that night, far from being a sophisticated act of cultural subversion, had instead been simply boorish.

The reason for my confusion was simple: "187" opened nationwide on a Wednesday, while the vast majority of movies open on Fridays. In and of itself, that might seem merely odd. But "187" is a bleaker version of "The Blackboard Jungle" that tells the story of an inner-city high school teacher's vain attempt to remain sane in the face of classroom violence, an incompetent and uncaring bureaucracy and a criminal justice system that will not protect the good. In other words, it's what the industry calls an "urban film," which means that young black and Latino males are expected to make up a sizable percentage of its audience. (This, even though young black and Latino males are the film's nightmarish villains.) And what's curious about "urban films" is that a disproportionate number of them open on Wednesdays.

This shift from Fridays to Wednesdays is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back, as far as I can tell, only to 1993 -- though it's only in recent years that the practice has become institutionalized. Studios made the shift after a series of films -- including "New Jack City" and "Boyz N the Hood" -- had openings marred by shootings and other violence. Most of the shootings took place outside the theaters, but more than once shots were exchanged while the movie was playing. And these were Glocks being fired, not Super-Squirters.

The actual number of incidents seems to have been relatively small -- no more than a total of 20 -- but exhibitors were concerned enough to demand changes before they would continue to show these films. Since in most cases the violence erupted after people weren't able to get into sold-out shows, the answer the studios came up with was to diffuse the crowds by opening the movies a couple days earlier. The true Tupac fanatics could go on Wednesday, and by Friday all the tension would have dissipated.

"This all started with 'New Jack City,' which is when the first real violence occurred," says a studio executive who asked to remain anonymous. "The theater owners wanted us to do something to tone down the crowds. This way we essentially spread the opening out over a few days. You get a couple extra days not competing against bigger films, and there's not as much potential for violence. And it's worked. Everyone seems happy with the arrangement."

The arrangement seems to be what you might call an open secret. Everyone knows about it -- after all, if the film opens on Wednesday, you can't exactly hide it -- but no one really talks about it. And there has been very little press coverage of the story, either, which is interesting given the fact that what we're really talking about is an effort to decide when films will open based on what kind of people the studios imagine will be going to see them.

What's most intriguing about this whole phenomenon, in fact, are the fine distinctions studios evidently draw in deciding what qualifies as an "urban" movie. This year, for instance, the Tupac Shakur-Tim Roth film "Gridlock'd," Ice Cube's "Dangerous Ground," the romantic comedy "Love Jones" and "187" all opened on Wednesdays. But "Rosewood," John Singleton's movie about a black town burned to the ground by racists, opened on a Friday. And "Hoodlum," which is about a mob war in Harlem in the 1920s, is going to open on a Friday later this month. Period pieces, apparently, do not incite crowds to violence.

One rule that appears rather inflexible is that big stars get the Friday opening, as evidenced by Michelle Pfeiffer's "Dangerous Minds" and Denzel Washington's "Devil in a Blue Dress" (although "Devil" was also protected by the period-piece rule). Aside from that, studios are forced to make careful -- or arbitrary, depending on your perspective -- delineations. Both "Fled" and "Bulletproof," two black/white buddy films chock-full of violence and drugs, were given Friday slots. So, too, was the satire "Don't Be a Menace," though one might have thought that being made fun of generally made people more, not less, likely to resort to violence. But "Set It Off," which was about a gang of female bank robbers, opened on a Wednesday, as did John Singleton's campus epic "Higher Learning."

The two best "urban" films of this decade both opened on Wednesday, since in this as in so much else Hollywood distinguishes movies by genre and not by quality. "Menace II Society" was one of the very first Wednesday films, while Boaz Yakim's "Fresh," which hardly anyone saw until it came out on video, was the first Wednesday film by a non-black director.

Needless to say, there's something viscerally unappealing about the segmentation of movie audiences in this way. In a sense, it's a very basic expression of the niche marketing and narrowcasting that's come to play such a crucial role in modern mass media, and although its purpose is to defuse violence, it's difficult not to imagine a little bit of "if they want to shoot each other, let them do it when fewer people are around" thinking in all this. But it's hard to argue with the results. Although there were shootings when "Set It Off" opened, in all other cases, peace has reigned. In any case, there's clearly nothing set in stone about the Friday opening. Movies used to open on Wednesdays. And one could easily imagine a scenario in which art films would open on Monday nights (since art-house lovers generally don't have full-time jobs), action films on Fridays, romantic comedies on Saturdays, children's films on Sunday afternoon and so on. None of us would ever have to see anyone who didn't share our taste. What a wonderful world it would be.

Meanwhile, there's a strange coda to this story. While "urban" films do open on Wednesdays, that is apparently not why "187" opened on July 30. "We thought the picture was going to do well critically, so the reason we opened it on a Wednesday was to be able to showcase our positive reviews properly on the two biggest days of the week," says Don Buckley, senior vice president of theatrical marketing and new media. Buckley said -- convincingly -- that he had never heard of the urban-Wednesday rule, and insisted that the Wednesday opening was just a way of getting "187" some extra attention it might not have found in the "extremely cluttered" summer-film environment. He also pointed out that "Wild America," a movie starring that kid from "Home Improvement," opened earlier this month on a Wednesday. "Wild America" presumably had a very small number of "urban" viewers. (You can understand the chagrin I felt when contemplating my behavior in the theater that night.)

Of course, the fact that "187," a film about urban violence, just happened to open on a Wednesday, when all other films about urban violence open, is a coincidence of rather monumental proportions. But isn't that why we call them coincidences?

James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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