Sellout crowd is a victory for theater and family movie

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AS I pulled into the parking lot Saturday night next to the Heritage Cineplex on Taylor Avenue, I could tell it was not going to be business as usual for the only African-American-owned independent theater in the Baltimore area.

The lot was nearly full. Customers queued up to the admission window to buy tickets. The larger of Heritage's two theaters was about one-third full when I took my seat, about 25 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. showtime. Patrons poured in after that. When the sneak preview of The Fighting Temptations was about to start, every seat -- all 472 of them -- was taken. Michael Johnson, founder of Heritage, had his first sellout in six years. And Hollywood had been sent yet another message about the cash cow that family films can be.

The Fighting Temptations stars Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. and singer/actress Beyonce Knowles in a musical comedy about a New York junior ad exec -- cash-strapped, in debt and just canned from his job -- who learns he can pocket a cool $150,000 if he reorganizes the choir at his late aunt's church and leads it to victory in a gospel competition. Judging from the reaction of the audience and by the considerable number of youngsters in attendance, big bucks await The Fighting Temptations.

"It was good," R. Smith, 51 (he refused to give his first name; it must be a humdinger), said outside the Heritage when the movie ended. "It had a good message. The music was excellent. I'm glad a lot of young people were in the audience tonight."

Smith said he was impressed by the diversity in the cast. Melba Moore, a singer/actress who has done films and appeared on Broadway, is in the movie, as is Rue McClanahan, formerly of television's The Golden Girls. Both play members of the choir of a predominantly black church that has white and Asian members. (A character played by comedian Michael Epps tells a toddler with distinctly Asian features -- the son of an Asian man and a black woman -- "you know, I'm your daddy" as the parents walk into church.)

Besides gospel and blues, there is a segment with a white rapper that Smith said he especially liked. It was gospel rap, meaning no profanity and vulgarity, which should prove to some of today's rappers that, yes, such rap is possible and may even be popular.

"I think religion is the vehicle that can get the message out to a broader audience," he said. This was his third trip to Heritage. The other times, the crowds had fewer than 100 people. Asked why he chose Heritage over the other four movie complexes showing sneak previews of The Fighting Temptations, Smith said, "To support him."

Him would be Johnson, of course, who sat on steps outside the theater and pondered the meaning of his first sellout.

"It shows you what a good family, spiritual movie will do," Johnson said. "We had more church people here than anything. This has nothing to do with me and everything to do with people supporting a black business that provides quality. My pastor even came. She said, 'Now I have something I can tell my parishioners to see.'"

Patricia Lynne Bell-McDuffie, who described herself as "the quasi-CEO of Heritage," also manned the ticket booth.

"We were hoping for a sellout crowd," she said, "but we're wonderfully surprised." That's because, according to Bell-McDuffie, word about the sneak preview at Heritage didn't get out until the previous day: Friday. Word-of-mouth did the trick.

"We don't have the big budgets," she said, "to do the type of advertising they [movie complexes like Muvico and White Marsh] do on a daily basis."

Irvin Lewis attended the sneak preview with his 12-year- old daughter. He was impressed by -- you guessed it -- the family-friendly flavor of The Fighting Temptations.

"I can watch it with my kid," Lewis said. "That's something that's a rarity today."

Lewis described The Fighting Temptations as "an updated Sister Act," a film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Lewis said The Fighting Temptations was better, showing good things do indeed happen when you don't put Goldberg in a movie.

"The singing was phenomenal," Lewis said. "[The film] did what it was supposed to do. It entertained without shooting."

Will Hollywood get that message? Johnson isn't sure.

"The question is," Johnson queried, "can Hollywood survive on something like this? This shows people really want to go back to family movies."

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