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I don’t do much Monday-morning box-offiice opinion on this blog because too many others do it far better and far more obsessively than I’d ever be able to. That said, I’m pretty surprised that in its second week Hustle and Flow, which is our cover story this month in Filmmaker, fell out of the top ten with an estimated 50% drop to $4 million from its only okay opening of $8 million last weekend. Honestly, I had Hustle pegged as a crossover mainstream hit, and when I hung out a couple weeks ago with a studio exec friend, we made an informal bet on its prospects. He had it at $40 million, and I had it at $60 million. Now it looks like it will wind up around $20 million. That’s not bad for an equity-financed indie move that cost less than $3 million — when we do our annual Sundance Box-Office Grosses chart, its budget/box-office ratio will probably be the highest of last year’s Competition — but it has to be considered a disappointment for Paramount, which paid $10 million for the film and allocated it a hefty marketing campaign of at least $15 million plus lots of synergistic in-kind promotion on MTV.

What happened? When I saw the film at Sundance, the crowd went wild for it — and I was at a press screening. The word from the public screenings was also through the roof, and while a number of influential critics dissed it, it didn’t seem like the kind of movie that was dependent on their word anyway. Indeed, Paramount’s confident and stylish campaign seemed centered on the breakout performance of Terrence Howard and a kind of burnished street cred, forgoing the expected “big head” one-sheet for a poster that referenced rap CD cover design and 70s blaxploitation against a somewhat melancholy image of Howard looking down at the ground.

The thin air at Sundance may have had something to do with it, however. I’m not talking about the Sundance factor leading to an overestimation of the quality of the film, which I still think is pretty great, but rather, an underestimation of its marketing challenge. You see, at Sundance, buzz builds quickly and intensely, and what a movie is actually about has very little to do with one’s decision to go see it. At Sundance, Hustle and Flow was the “Craig Brewer film,” “the film John Singleton personally paid for,” and, finally, “the film Paramount bought for $10 million.” One thing it wasn’t was “a film about a pimp.”

“I don’t know why they let that word into their marketing materials,” a 40-something publicist friend said to me last week. “But the film is about a pimp,” I countered. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s a film about a guy with a dream. Let other people say it’s about a pimp, but don’t say it yourself.”

I thought about her comments when I heard back from two friends, both directors in their twenties, who caught the film on the opening weekend. Both thought Howard was fantastic, thought the film was incredibly well-made… but ultimately couldn’t recommend it. Because it was about a pimp. One of my friends really wrestled with his thoughts and felt somewhat old-fashioned about his issues with the film. But ultimately, he just couldn’t go there, couldn’t root for Howard’s DJay because of his morally compromised profession.

This point of view is summarized by “nudel” over at The Hot Blog: “At the end of the day, I didn’t WANT to see DJay succeed. Regardless of the whole ‘rise above’ theme/marketing campaign & the “everybody got to have a dream’ stuff, he’s still a pimp who sells drugs, beats one of his hos, makes another one blow a guy so he can get a nice microphone, and beats & almost kills someone else who doesn’t give him what he wants. My guess is that these actions are a big turn-off, not only to ‘middle America,’ but to a large segment of ‘indie’ filmgoers. Clearly, we’re supposed to sympathize with and cheer for D-Jay, but personally, I found it very hard to do so.”

And another of my publicist friend’s comments were echoed by another Hot Blogger, “Stella’s Boy”: “how do i convince my (white) friends to see hustle and flow? none of them want to see it because it looks like another generic urban film to them.” The publicist (who is white) told me she felt that none of the marketing materials were aimed at her and made her feel that it was a film she should go and see.

And then there’s the “authenticity” rap, the charge by some that the film doesn’t feel “real” in its depiction of the Memphis underclass. (To this I say that the film is not so much trying to be “authentic” as it is presenting a fable of authenticy, a kind of essay on the role of the criminal experience in our contemporary popular culture.)

The feel of the marketing probably has something to do with the film’s failure to cross over, but I think the pimp thing may have more to do with it. And here’s where my reaction differed from my friends. At Sundance I cheered the film as it ramped up DJay’s Memphis rap scene rise. But, I wasn’t cheering the character of DJay specifically. I admired the film’s ability to present DJay as a morally flawed, egotistic, and not really that talented rapper and still draw us into his “star is born” storyline. In fact, what was most interesting for me was the film’s depiction of how others realized their own dreams of being part of a cultural moment by projecting them through the lens of DJay and his pimp life. My favorite scene was that tiny moment at the end when the DJ Qualls character hears his song while stocking a vending machine. You just know that he’s never going to make a dime off that song, that five years later he’ll still be stocking that vending machine, but it doesn’t matter.

In his Filmmaker interview, Brewer referenced Purple Rain and Prince’s fucked-up behavior to Appolonia. I’d throw in New York, New York, another movie about a misogynist musician getting tangled up between women and his dreams. As with those films, we go into Hustle and Flow thinking that its characters can be read as simply as its song lyrics. That winds up not being the case, and I guess the complications at the heart of what reads like a music-driven crowdpleaser make it not quite the crossover success I expected.

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