That Spike Lee is a very interesting filmmaker with deft talents and cinematic vision or that he is one of the most quoted and recognizable Hollywood personalities would clearly be an understatement, to say that his fame and obvious talents have translated into Box office rewards would be certainly, and undeniably: false.

The Spike Lee Box office paradox is as complex as many of his best films.  At face value his films have all the trimmings to guarantee box office success –star power, critical acclaim, social relevance and the all important, controversy.  .And upon further scrutiny he is very adept at managing the first element in that box office formula --star power.  Simply put Actors love him.   He is seen as an actors director who makes important films and because of this, is someone big name talent wants to work with[1].   His films have starred esteemed, mainstream actors including  Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing), Anthony Quinn ( Jungle Fever), Ben Gazzarra (Summer of Sam), Mira Sorvino (Summer of Sam), and John Turturro ( Do the Right thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, Girl 6). He’s also introduced numerous actors, particularly Black actors, that are now mainstays in popular culture; actors such as Samuel L Jackson (School Daze, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), Halle Berry (Jungle Fever), Mekhi Phifer (Crooklyn), and Denzel Washington (Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X).  Jackson who’s portrayal of a drug addicted but charismatic son of a fire and brimstone preacher (Ossie Davis) drew rave reviews and in many ways stole the show.  This led to his casting in Pulp Fiction and the rest as they say is history.  Washington whose name now has become synonymous with serious award winning performances, didn’t get his first screen break with Spike, but did get his first. 1st romantic lead (Mo’ Better Blues) which the author believes lead to his sizable drawing power and crossover appeal. Wesley Snipes’s star turn in a tremendous supporting role as the saxophone playing Shadow, emerged in the same film (Mo’ Better Blues)[2]..  He gave Comedian Martin Lawrence, his first role (Do the Right Thing); now a bonafide star whose star power almost guarantees 100 million dollar box., and hired an adult Lawrence Fishburn  as DAP (School Daze) whose biggest role prior was a s a teenager in Coppola’s Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now

Again one of the major studio mandates is to have a “name “ actor in a film well Spike has done that and more –he’s actually created names “ in the process” by finding actors that are on the cusp and catapulting them over the top to stardom.  His eye for talent is becoming legend –something that always helps when determining greatness in directors[3].

As an Technician, he is by most informed accounts one of our true American autuers featuring, love it or hate it, a very discernable style with regard to story, edit, camera, and cinematography.[4] Additionally, although in excess of the scope of this essay, upon deep reading, he has developed signature language and semiotics in the theoretical and aesthetic realm[5].( i.e. use of the trademark floating shot, color , film stock usage). [6] 

Furthermore, Spike’s films deal with cultural and topical subject matter, so much so that he has been valorized as a voice for Black America and chief agitator for White America.  Thus, with African Americans filling the box office to the tune of a disproportional 25% of all domestic ticket sales, he should theoretically, at least, be among the top box office producers in the country..[7]   Instead, his films in 13 years since Do the Right Thing, with the exception of the epic Malcolm X which too was a disappointment at $48.2 million, have averaged a paltry 18 million[8] (excluding the documentaries Jim Brown All - American 2003, the Oscar nominated 4 Little Girls, and the concert film the Kings of Comedy 2001)

So what’s the problem?

I think one major problem at work here is definition.  Is Spike Lee a critically acclaimed Art House director or big social -event director that makes must see important films concerning the American experience.

Lets look empirically at his latest film the 25th hour to help us paint a picture of the issue. 

As I see it there are 3 important issues at work here. 1) His filmmaker status. 2) His supposed demographic 3) Global outlet / marketing strategies.  However for the purposes of this paper and to respect (somewhat) the word requirement, points 2 and 3 will be dealt with at a later date in a more expansive format.

Filmmaker Status

 We can see that over his career has been seen as an important chronicler of the American tapestry, especially for African American stories.  And Although many of his films are smaller personal films, (School Daze, Crooklyn, Mo’ Better Blues, Get on the Bus) I would not put him in the canon of “Art House Director” with the notable exception of his very 1st film She’s Gotta Have It.  That is, until now.  With the release of the 25th hour, he has been solidly placed in the Art House township and taken off big social event dais.

Examining the numbers for the 25th Hour we can clearly see Buena Vista used a classic Art House template starting with a platform release to gain industry buzz then ramping up to between 250-500 theaters.  Gauging solely on Art house criteria ( under 500 screens, ramped release, smaller theaters) we can say that 25th hour was moderately successful, especially against similarly positioned films of the same release point like the other critically acclaimed crime thriller Narc[9]25th Hour  opened on Dec 19th on 5 screens with a whooping $27,000 / per screen average and graduated to a height of 495 screens six weeks later on the weekend of January 26th 2003 while still maintaining a healthy $5700/ per screen[10].  The film in total has been in theaters for 12 weeks and has grossed approximately 12.8 million, although it has seen its per screen average dwindle to a paltry $1379 on only 56 screens[11]25th should be out of theaters in 2-4 weeks and probably will end up with approximately $13 million.  With a cost of 14million basically this film will Break even* ( the information that I’ve gotten has been somewhat conflicting as to the cost of the film.  IMDB has 2 numbers for cost 5 and 15 million.  I have written them about this but have not heard back at the time of this essay.  I have read elsewhere that the production cost was 14mil*. And do not know if this includes Print and advertising .  using Olen Earnests multiplier of 2.5 either the film cost 5 million and broke even OR which actually may be more the case, the production cost was $14 million with P& A coming in @  the avg. Hollywood rate of 65% which gives us a 9  million P&A number. (I doubt that the figures for this film were actually this high) So we are talking about a 24 million dollar film.  However using Earnest’s formula it would have to make 35 mil to BE and without foreign sales -- point 3 in our discussion, this film will not break even until its full DVD, cable and video run.  Again I must reiterate my uneasiness using the Earnest model.  I believe his multiplier may be true for the typical blockbuster but I’m sure it the P& A budget is modified for smaller pictures of the limited release variety and thus should command a lower multiplier.  Also, intuitively the multiplier should be 1.65 , the production cost + the print and Advertising cost.  What accounts for the remaining .85?

At any rate the Edward Norton star vehicle started out very competitive and played to many a sold out show –specifically in New York, the first 2 weeks the author could not get a ticket without buying 2 shows in advance at the 42 St. AMC in Manhattan.  Lee’s morality tale steadily climbed in the box by 8% and 15% in weeks 3 and 4, then jumped 2000% after going semi-wide (for Art house platform release) to 490 screens.   25th stayed flat here for 2 weeks before adding 5 screens the weekend of Jan 26th  to 495 but  the box plummeted 48%.[12]

 It took 5 weeks before we saw any decline in the numbers a solid run for any film mainstream,  art house, or otherwise.  Coincidentally Paramount’s Narc fell to a similar fate dipping 42% that same weekend although playing at 300 more screens[13].  Although 25th Hour opened robustly, it nevertheless seemed to die a rapid death, falling precipitously by 31%, 53%,42%, 61% and 27% in the following 6 weeks.  Yet while this seemed to seal its fate it is interesting to note that the per screen average stayed the same, hovering around $2100-$1700 until last week’s drop to $1300 / screen.  My interpretation of the data leads me to surmise that demand basically stayed constant because after week 7 it s screens were halved each successive week yet as I stated the per screen average was flat. It is my opinion, if it had been kept in wider release perhaps it would have performed better before petering out in weeks 10-14.

Thus, by all measures this film looked smelled and acted like a Art House film but the real question is why?  All the ingredients-- story line, high profile actors, signature director, an adapted screenplay from a popular book-- should have mandated a 2000 theater release.  Has Spike been marginalized by Woody Allen Syndrome*?  In a sense YES.  I think especially by the studios who feel that he is important enough to continue to fund , albeit modestly, but the resulting efforts behind the film seem as though they’re saying its just another Spike Lee joint—you pretty much know what you’re going to get. The audience may play into this as well

If we look at the other Spike Lee joint that had sort of the same milieu especially in the sense of mainstream casting --Summer of Sam we see the beginnings of this shift.  By all accounts this seemed like a bigger event picture. Spike revisits the hot summertime cauldron that is NY for the first time since his classic Do the Right Thing, he has the controversy of doing a movie about a hated killer -- some of whose victims are still alive, which of course gave the media a lot to chew on.  And they took the ball and ran, going as far as to interview the Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz himself, creating a tabloid type atmosphere in the process[14].  Moreover, this was part of Disney’s attempt to do adult fare and Spike pushed every envelope that he could including filming the now famous Plato’s Retreat orgy scene which was censured by the MPAA.

So with the stage set and a July release Sam opened with very good numbers –14 million in the 1st 2 weeks on 1500 screens  Not Blockbuster #’s but certainly solid.  After the second week however the film plummeted over the next 10 weeks ending up with only a 19.3 domestic box. [15].

Again what happened/?  I think there are 2 factors at work here the Woody Allen issue is a valid one where we can bank on Spike’s core audience to go to the Box to the tune of 15-20 mil.  On occasion he will have a bigger hit (i.e. Kings of Comedy which grossed over 30 million and was produced for 3 million.  However this was sort of an anomaly due to  a different demographic than his normal target audience)[16] 

The other issue is that Sam was not very good.  It simply was not one of his better efforts and the audience reacted accordingly.  This was Lee’s 12th film he should be allowed a downer every now and again.  In fact, this issue of box office leniency has been a bone of contention for him as he has often stated that black filmmakers are held to a different set of rules--they are not allowed to fail; if they do they are not readily picked up for the next film[17].  Woody Allen’s current Dreamworks situation can be used to illustrate my point.  Allen has not had a hit in years, maybe as many as 10, yet he is unrequitedly supported by Spielberg and Co regardless of the box, presumably  for the Arnhiemian motivation of preserving film as art.  Now I’m not saying that this is a negative, in fact, I argue that Dreamworks is doing the right thing.  Woody Allen has been an important contributor to cinema, but so has a Spike Lee or a Charles Burnett and as such should be allowed to experiment and fail periodically for the sake of their unique vision—without penalty.

So in conclusion, I think we are witnessing a new period for Spike Lee[18].  This will demarcate his marginalization into the Art House pantheon where fortunately many a great director rest. However while this may be a great place to be critically, it is prison in terms of box office success—unless of course your film is about Greeks who are about to wed.

With the acceleration over the past decade in the conglomoritization of the film business -- and in media as a whole -- moving toward economies of scale, and studios run by MBA’s instead of filmmakers, there is very little room for the Spike Lee’s of the world—except in niche exposure.  I think we will see from here on out that Spike increasingly will have limited released, modestly budgeted* ($5-15 million), small personal, hopefully critically acclaimed films-- and will never see the 2000 screen Event again—unless of course he does another high reaching / high concept, controversial, race bio-epic[19]. And even then I don’t know if that would pull him out of his new niche. 

I think New Yorker magazine’s Anthony Lane sums Spike’s crossroad best:

“Not Long ago Spike Lee pictures had to be seen, and to be believed. These days they are no less driven but they feel oddly inessential; it is possible both to be awed by the stamina of his indignation and to wonder grimly what direction it will have next”[20].

*Authors note; there are other mitigating factors for Spike Lee’s box office woes, namely the problem of his demographic target audience, and the lack of a global marketing strategy for Black films.  These issues will be addressed in the upcoming parts 2 & 3 of this essay.



[1] . Le Duff, Charlie.  “Box  Office He Wants, Not A Drink.” New York Times December ,15 , 2002, Sunday ed. Film

[2] ..This after his mainstream break as Willie Mays Hays in Major League; with the subsequent lead in Spike’s 1991’s Jungle Fever , Snipes  landed on the map as an actor of merit which of course lead to his burgeoning career as an action hero ( Demolition Man, Blade Franchise) as well as award winning  “indie” actor America’s dream, ….)

[3] . Orson Welles in Citizen Kane used New York stage actors ,otherwise unknown commodities in Hollywood for his masterwork..

[4] . Bordwell, David. “Intensified Continuity.” Film Quarterly, Vol .55, Issue 3, pages 16-28.

Bordwell examines  Visual style and contemporary film aesthetics looking closely at how films are edited,  shots are edited and framed  as well as which lenses are used to give viewer their information.  He uses these avenues to illustrate that modern film is not all that different from the classical Hollywood model—a radical assessment.  I interpret the data to contend that Spike Lee as a director has used those elements in a very specific way to create a signature style.  

[5] Metz, Christian.  “Film Language.” Film Theory and Criticism, 5th Edition. Pages 68-89. Ed. Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall

[6] . Although the floating shot has been associated with Spike Lee, and he has used it with great artistic effect, he is not the originator of the shot;  that distinction (at least in modern film)belongs to Melvin Van Peebles who used the shot during a bar scene in his 1967 film Story of a Three Day Pass.  Also of note Spike was the first to use a process called cross-processing whereby reversal film stock is put into a negative bath to get more grain and less photographic latitude.  he wound up using a film stock that had previously only been used by NASA.  Technicolor labs even had to change mechanisms it in their machines to accommodate Spikes vision see (Pizzello, Stephen, American Cinematographer, September, 1995,p38).  He used this stock to effect a more vibrant color scheme and heighten the realistic look of Black skin on film.  Such pursuits show his effort to exploit the medium as well as create individual style.

[7] Muhammad, Tarik K.  “Film Noir.” Black Enterprise Dec. 1997: 91

[8]  Thompson, Anne. “Spike lee’s Game”, New York  Dec 23-30 2002. Page 34

By today’s standards this box office amount would be a solid 2 weekend figure for a wide release blockbuster of Malcolm X’s stature.  An interesting sidebar and explored at in depth in later sections of this essay is that all of Spike’s box office numbers are Domestic only.  He has not had success overseas nor in fact has any Black Hollywood filmmaker with the exception of perhaps the international maverick Melvin Van Peebles.  

[9]  Rottenberg, Josh.  “The Insiders Indie” The New York Times 30 Nov 2002.  Sunday Magazine.

Narc was released the same week in limited release and therefore is a good barometer by which to judge the 25th hour’s success.  Interestingly to note  these two film are the same animal.  While Narc does not have the star director nor is Ray Liotta or Jason Patrick ( the stars of Narc) as “big” as Edward Norton , due to some very fortuitous screenings at Sundance,  the film has gathered a virtual laundry list of big name talent, the most important of which is MEGA star Tom Cruise who has personally endorsed Narc and in true Hollywood fashion many others MEGA stars want to be “in” and have placed their endorsements on the film as well.  In fact, Cruise is in a way presenting the film.  So with that kind of push I think it’s very clear these films are not exactly similar

[10] . 25th Hour.  Box  Office and Business. Internet Movie Data Base. 4 Mar. 2002 , http://www.imdb.com.

[11]  Variety Box Office, Variety  10-16 March 2003.

[12] ---------------------, Variety 6-12 Jan 2003 – 3-9 Feb 2003

[13] ---------------------, Variety 3-9 Feb 2003

[14]  Aubry, Erin J. “Summer of Spike”, lA Weekly  2 Jul 1999 page 30

[15] Summer of Sam. Internet Movie Database, Box Office Business. <http://www.imdb.com

[16] A younger less intellectual demographic came to see Standup comedians doing raw humor.  This group had clear allegiance to the hip - hop culture with the “Kings” notoriety coming from TV and Russell  Simmons’s  Def Jam comedy circuit.   This is not Lee’s normal audience-- middle class Blacks ( a target audience that presents part of his Box office quandary)—but for this particular picture he got a welcome  infusion of new blood.

[17] Aubry, Erin J. “Summer of Spike”, lA Weekly  2 Jul 1999 page 30

[18] Arnold, Darren . The Pocket Essential Spike Lee, Great Britain: Trafalgar Square publishing, 2003

Arnold posits that Spike has had 3 major periods of filmmaking.  Periods 1 and 2 separated by Malcolm X, and period 3 beginning with 4 little Girls.  I am in agreement here but would add a fourth with the beginning of his Art House era ushered by The 25th hour.

[19] Thompson, Anne. “Spike lee’s Game”, New York  Dec 23-30 2002. Page 34

Spike has been trying to get the funding for two bio-epics for some time now, The Jackie Robinson Story and the a film around the life and times of the “Brown Bomber”, former boxing Heavyweight Champion  Joe Louis.  These are ambitious works with big social relevance, films that tell us about ourselves as Americans.  

[19]  Lane, Anthony. New Yorker .9 Oct 2000