best man holiday box officeUniversal

No one expected "The Best Man Holiday" to enjoy such a huge debut -- an estimated $30.6 million, only about $8 million behind the second-week earnings of chart-topper "Thor: The Dark World." Even its distributor, Universal Studios, was predicting an opening in the high teens. After all, it's the sequel to a movie that came out a full 14 years ago, one with no huge A-list stars, one that opened with $9.0 million on the way to a $34.1 million total. (At today's ticket prices, that's a $14.3 million debut and a $54.3 million final gross.) So even the most optimistic pundits predicted a premiere of no better than $22 million for "The Best Man Holiday."

How then did "Holiday" manage to outperform expectations by $8 to $12 million? Part of it is good luck, part is good execution, but much of it is that the expectations were unduly low, thanks to the inability of even studio marketers to recognize the existence of an African-American audience, largely older and female, that's woefully underserved.

The good luck came when two other movies that were supposed to open wide this weekend dropped out, giving "Holiday" the field all to itself. Fox decided that "The Book Thief" would do better in limited release and moved it to last week, and Paramount pushed "The Wolf of Wall Street" forward to Christmastime.

Also lucky was the studio's ability, 14 years after "The Best Man," to reunite writer/director Malcolm D. Lee and all nine of the principal cast members. After all, the original movie, modest hit that it was, had only seen its fan base grow over the years, thanks to endless replays on cable and home video. In that time, most of the movie's ensemble -- including Taye Diggs, Terrence Howard, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Harold Perrineau, Nia Long, and Regina Hall -- have become bigger stars, so getting them all back (at a bargain budget of $17 million) must have taken some wrangling.

Here's where good execution comes in. Lee crafted a Christmas reunion story for his now-beloved characters that, by most accounts, brought the laughs and wrung the tears. "Holiday" has earned middling-to-good reviews but outstanding word-of-mouth, as measured by an A+ grade at CinemaScore.

Even before word-of-mouth confirmed to fans that the movie lived up to 14 years of expectations, pre-sales for the movie were reportedly strong. So strong that the movie earned $10.7 million on Friday, more even than "Thor" that day. Then those Friday viewers recommended "Holiday" to others, so it did even better on Saturday, earning $12.4 million.

So someone in marketing did their job right. Why then, was everyone so surprised to see "Holiday" earn nearly as much in three days as "The Best Man" earned throughout its entire run in 1999? The answer may lie in the demographic breakdown of the audience, which polls showed to be 87 percent African-American, 75 percent female, and 63 percent over 35.

Now, it's not a surprise that a movie with an all-black cast, with several handsome and charismatic male stars, and with a plot focusing on grown-up issues of midlife romance, careers, and family would attract an audience that's predominantly African-American, female, and older. Yet the studios have all but ignored that audience over the years. Mini-major Lionsgate tends to reach them with Tyler Perry's movies, but every other studio seems to have given up trying. (Indeed, the studios and box-office pundits alike have been caught flat-footed this year with the success of certain movies aimed at non-white demographics thought to be niche audiences, like the Latino crossover hit "Instructions Not Included" -- also a Lionsgate movie, as it turns out.).

At any rate, now that "The Best Man Holiday" has proved that audiences will turn out for a movie with an African-American cast that handles with some intelligence and craft grown-up issues of romance and family -- without having Tyler Perry's name stamped on it -- might the studios recognize that they should try to give that audience more of the same?