Tim Story calls it "director's jail."
That's where Story, 43, found himself just a few years ago, despite his successful directorial debut in 2002 with "Barbershop," which earned critics' praise and made $77 million worldwide on a modest $12-million budget. And despite the Marvel superhero franchise that followed, Story's "Fantastic Four" films in 2005 and 2007, which grossed more than $600 million worldwide.
But from those highs came the low: "Hurricane Season," the story of a basketball coach and his team one year after Hurricane Katrina. The film wasn't even released in theaters and went to DVD in 2009.
"The industry is not touching you. 'You're only as good as your last movie' — that's the saying in Hollywood," Story recalls. "All of a sudden, you're the director that made a direct-to-DVD film."
A mortgage payment and other bills kept coming. Story moved his family to a smaller house while preparing for the arrival of his third child. He took meetings on other projects, but nothing panned out.
"I wasn't looking for a movie to make another great film," he says, just one that would let him "keep the house and pay for my family to eat. I was looking for a movie for all the wrong reasons."
That finally changed with Story's 2012 release, "Think Like a Man," which earned more than $96 million worldwide. Now audiences are flocking to Story's take on the buddy-cop genre, "Ride Along." Last weekend, the film surpassed a January box-office record set by "Cloverfield" in 2008, pulling in $48.1 million for the four-day holiday period, according to studio estimates.
"We were never worried about whether the audiences would like it. We made it for them," Story said Monday, after preliminary box office numbers were in. "I think it's because it really makes you laugh. You're in a movie, and you're laughing to where you can't hear the next dialogue."
"Ride Along" follows Ben (Kevin Hart), who's ready to propose to his girlfriend, Angela (Tika Sumpter), but needs the approval of her detective brother, James (Ice Cube). Ben goes on a 24-hour patrol around Atlanta with James to prove himself worthy.
The plot wasn't far removed from Story's relationship with his twin sister (minus the intense chase scene, the string of bullets and the mishap at a firing range).
"Even though she's married to a great guy, the question was, 'Who is he?' and 'Is he good enough for you?' " Story says. "When that movie came along, I could immediately access it from a personal standpoint."
"Ride Along" reunites Story with actors he has worked with before, including Hart and Ice Cube.
"It's the equivalent of going to that restaurant and getting the same dish," he says. "You know what you're going to get."
During filming, Story says, the best scenes didn't follow the script. It just took Ice Cube's infamous scowl and Hart's bumbling antics.
"He's the most laid-back director I've ever worked with. I wonder how he gets things done," Ice Cube says about working with Story for the first time since "Barbershop." "It's like doing a movie with a family member, in a way."
Laurence Fishburne, who voiced the Silver Surfer in the "Fantastic Four" sequel (Story calls the actor "Sir Laurence"), also is back for "Ride Along," this time to play a character best not revealed for those who haven't seen the film.
"One of the greatest moments is when you see him walk on screen and you hear the audience go, 'Oh!' It's awesome," Story says.