HOLLYWOOD -- They may be sporting X's on their baseball caps and T-shirts, but young African-Americans, expected to form the core audience for the movie "Malcolm X," are not flocking to see the epic biography of a black hero.
Research conducted for Warner Bros., the film's distributor, shows that three-quarters of the audience for the heavily publicized Spike Lee film about the slain black nationalist leader is 25 or older. After a strong opening, attendance for the $34 million film has been dropping rapidly, perhaps because of the holiday competition. The picture has grossed $38 million in five weeks.
It may be the 3-hour, 20-minute length of "Malcolm X" as well as its weighty subject matter that are keeping young black audiences away. "Are they afraid they're going to get a history lesson?" mused Marvin Worth, the film's producer. Mr. Worth also said "it's not a date picture." Based on "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," the film traces his evolution from street hustler to Muslim minister and contains few scenes of violence or sex.
The film's length, which also affects box-office grosses by eliminating at least one show a day, is considered a problem for all age groups. But what seems especially puzzling is that the poor reception from young audiences comes at a time when there is virtually no competition for the teen-age market, with the exception of "Bram Stoker's Dracula." The Christmas season's only action picture, "Trespass," starring Ice-T and Ice Cube, does not open until tomorrow.
Warners spokesman Robert Friedman declined to disclose how the studio plans to court young filmgoers. Television advertising for "Malcolm X" was suspended about a week after the picture's Nov. 18 opening -- and was not resumed until last Sunday night -- on the theory that this type of promotion does not pay off while many filmgoers are doing their Christmas shopping.
From the outset, Warner Bros. was concerned about whether "Malcolm X," despite generally positive reviews, would have so-called crossover appeal to whites as well as blacks. Mr. Friedman contends the film is "getting a good solid mix" and an "exceptional" response from both blacks and whites interviewed exit pollsters.
But a spokesman for Pacific Theaters, a California chain with 300 screens, said by a rough estimate, blacks have been making up between 70 percent and 80 percent of the audience at most locations.
A.D. Murphy, box-office analyst for Daily Variety, said the film's performance has been "remarkable" considering that it does not, in his view, have mass appeal. "This is not a broad-based film; nor is it necessarily 'holiday' in ambience," he said. "I think $38 million is twice what it might have done."