Looking for a 'Barbershop' style: big hit, small cost


HOLLYWOOD -- When MGM released Barbershop 2: Back in Business in 2,700 theaters and on more than 3,000 screens Friday, it was aiming for a possible record with the widest release ever for a black-themed feature film.

The studio is also testing a pet theory of Vice Chairman Chris McGurk: the notion that a big-league film franchise can be built on a minor-league budget.

Just 17 months ago, MGM scored a surprise hit with the original Barbershop, a modestly budgeted ensemble comedy about one day in the life of a Chicago haircut emporium run by a struggling young barber played by movie star and rapper Ice Cube.

Powered by controversy over its satiric barbs at black icons Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, the picture grabbed a cross-cultural audience and took in more than $75 million at the U.S. box office.

Under the McGurk doctrine, MGM now is supposed to do it again -- and again -- without losing its balance in the price spiral that frequently makes Hollywood sequels cost more than they're worth.

"It's a hallmark of our strategy right now. Of 10 or 12 films a year on our slate, maybe half of them have a shot" at generating a relatively low-cost follow-up, McGurk said.

MGM hasn't exactly whipped inflation yet. According to studio officials, Barbershop 2 cost slightly less than $30 million. That's more than twice the original film's price tag, although still a bargain as major studio pictures go.

In November, the studio also expects to release Beauty Shop, a similarly budgeted spinoff filmed partly in Baltimore and starring and co-produced by Queen Latifah. Moreover, the company has been flirting with a possible deal to produce a Barbershop television series, McGurk said.

If those enterprises succeed, MGM -- the subject of past scorn for its many false starts and changes in direction -- can claim to have outmaneuvered conglomerate-owned rivals such as Time Warner's Warner Bros. and Sony's Sony Pictures Entertainment.

MGM is rare among Hollywood's major studios. It is a free-standing company controlled by dominant shareholder Kirk Kerkorian and heavily concentrated in the movie business without an array of supporting media enterprises.

The last major test of McGurk's franchise-on-the-cheap approach succeeded, if not spectacularly. Doubling down on its Legally Blonde, the studio gambled last July on a sequel that cost about 2 1/2 times the estimated $20 million spent on the original and took in somewhat less -- about $90 million -- in U.S. ticket sales.

Studio sources say the second film returned a profit of about $70 million, compared with $110 million for the original. But according to Logsdon, DVD sales from Legally Blonde 2 will be strong.

For the Barbershop knockoffs, the most delicate problem isn't cost but how to repeat, without seeming to exploit, the original film's artful self-critique of black culture -- a crucial task, given that McGurk has been trying to position MGM as a home for "urban" filmmakers.

Cedric the Entertainer, who mouthed the barbs at Park and King, resumes his monologue in the current film, which delves into the troubled barbershop's history. Wary of pushing such attitude too far, studio executives were careful to keep the film's release away from King's birthday, when the advantage of a three-day weekend might have been offset by increased sensitivity to the jabs.

According to box-office consulting firm Exhibitor Relations, deciding whether Barbershop 2, directed by black filmmaker Kevin Rodney Sullivan, is recognized as the widest black-themed release may depend on definitions.

Sony's Bad Boys II -- which opened last year in nearly 3,200 theaters and took in $138.4 million at the U.S. box office -- featured two black stars, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. But the picture had a white director, Michael Bay, and followed the lines of a conventional action-adventure buddy film.

Barbershop 2, by contrast, is rooted firmly in black culture -- and is reaching for the mainstream audience with a major distribution and marketing push.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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