Oscar Spotlight: Dreamgirls

BoxOfficeGuru.com examines this year's major contenders with the new Oscar Spotlight column. Each Friday, editor Gitesh Pandya talks one-on-one with the producers behind some of the most acclaimed films up for recognition this season.

This week, Oscar Spotlight talks to Laurence Mark, producer of Dreamgirls which led all films with eight Academy Award nominations. The Bill Condon-directed adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical did not earn a Best Picture nod, but with $80M in domestic ticket sales and an expansion into 571 additional theaters this weekend, Dreamgirls is well on its way to becoming a $100M blockbuster in North America with the international release just getting underway. The Paramount/DreamWorks film also won three Golden Globe awards including Best Picture - Comedy or Musical.

Laurence MarkBox Office Guru: How did you first set out putting the project together?

Laurence Mark: Well, it was one of those lucky rolodex things. Bill Condon has been a friend for the longest time and I ran into him right around Chicago time when he was getting offered every single Broadway show that hadn't been filmed yet. I asked if there was one he'd do. He said 'yes, there's one I would do.' And I said by the way you should direct it as well because, why not? He said 'good, I'm glad you feel that way, but the one I would do we'll never get the rights to because it's impossible.' And we both at the same time said Dreamgirls because David Geffen had been holding onto the rights for the longest time. He was really protecting them because he was one of the producers of the original musical and had just seen so many stage musicals kind of lose their luster when they were transferred on screen. And he did not want that to happen to the legend that was Dreamgirls and the legend that was [Broadway director] Michael Bennett.

I called David and he spent fifteen minutes saying how it would never happen because of all those reasons. I said I respect that position, and it's a classy position to take, and if you ever want to hear Bill and me talk about how we might do this, let me know. And he takes a beat, and in a very David Geffen way says 'how about lunch tomorrow?' So indeed Bill and I had lunch the next day with David after kind of making sure we knew what we were about to say. David reminisced a bit about how it originally came together on Broadway and how originally Effie White vanished after the intermission during the preview process. And it was Neil Simon who was the one who said finally to Michael Bennett 'you HAVE to bring Effie back because the audience will be really really irritated with you if you don't!' So Effie managed to come back in the second act, actually in the movie she has much more of a presence in the second half. And somewhere between the entrée and the dessert, Bill got to present his here's-how-I-would-do-it take. He wanted to keep most of the songs in performance, and those that were not done in performance he would try to keep near a stage or theater because it just helps the audience. And by the end of the six or seven minutes, David said 'why don't we give this a shot!' Bill had to go off and make Kinsey which he was already committed to doing. About a year and a half later a script came in that we had been working on and fortunately David, who was basically our studio, said 'wow, this is really terrific and let's put it together!'

BOG: Was it a long process to get all the acting talent on board?

LM: We got very lucky with the cast because as you know, one should only do any movie if you can get the cast right. Jamie and Eddie were the first people we really spoke to. Jamie said yes. There was a negotiation blip for a minute or two which in the end resolved itself. We had lunch with Eddie and said 'are you game for this?' And he said he didn't know because he thought it was a risk. And it was, because it was the first time he's ever sung or danced in a movie. He also said to us at that time that if there was a way that he could come on screen and people wouldn't know it was him for a few seconds, wouldn't that be great. As soon as he said that, we thought 'wow, that would be!' That means that Eddie Murphy is truly committing to playing this character. And he did commit. I happen to think Eddie is one of the best actors going. The Nutty Professor was one of the best acting tour de forces certainly of that year, and in many years. But in that movie he had all sorts of prosthetics and makeup to be funny behind, and here [Dreamgirls] he only had a pompadour to help him out! But he took the risk with us.

Once we had Eddie and Jamie, the cast started to come together. Beyonce's gang called us actually, and she was gracious enough to screen test on her own. She was amazing, and then that was a done deal. Then it was all about finding Effie. Movies are hugely about casting no matter what. This movie is hugely about the casting of Effie because if you don't do that right, you're in deep trouble. Fortunately Jennifer Hudson managed to rise to the surface.

BOG: Last winter, the musicals Rent and The Producers did not fare well at the box office. Dreamgirls has already grossed more than those two combined, but back then were you and the studio watching those grosses carefully and wondering what it could mean for the musical genre?

LM: We were watching it less than others. We certainly got asked that question. As in - are you concerned about these two movies not faring as well as one might have liked? And our answer then is just as it is now. It always makes me sad that the musical genre is apparently regarded as so fragile. Certainly if two thrillers had not worked as one would have hoped, and you were making a thriller, no one would say to you 'whoops, those last two thrillers - are you worried?' So the answer is that we were not worried, because we were doing our own musical that didn't have anything to do with the others. Maybe we were naïve in not worrying. But we didn't worry because we thought we had something different that we believed in. I'm hoping that in ten years people don't worry about oh gee, why are they breaking out into song? Because twenty years ago, they didn't.

BOG: Some of your recent films like Last Holiday and I, Robot were anchored by African American actors and found success at the box office. Do you think Hollywood fully understands the power and the size of the black moviegoing audience?

LM: Hmm, that's a good question. I certainly think they are coming around to it. If you look at the box office for Martin Luther King weekend, I believe Will Smith was toplining one of the movies that did really well, we did rather well, and then Stomp the Yard. If you throw all that together, I bet that was a huge African American turnout. Everytime that happens, Hollywood goes 'oh wow, there's more of an audience here than we might have thought.' Do I know what that means in the long run? No. But Hollywood is always a little surprised when it happens, and now it happens with a certain amount of consistency.

BOG: Dreamgirls scored eight Oscar nominations. Did you get a chance to talk to Eddie, Jennifer, or any others on Tuesday?

LM: Well Jennifer was in London just finishing up the London premiere there. She was there for an extra day or two to do some press. We emailed each other. And Eddie, as always, is kind of quiet about things.

BOG: For the domestic release, what were the marketing challenges and who came up with the idea of the platform opening in three cities with the special souvenir books?

LM: [DreamWorks marketing head] Terry Press came up with that idea. Really, it was an homage to the way musicals used to be presented. We toyed for about two seconds with the notion of an intermission, because that's also how they used to be done. We just thought it would be fun to bring that back. We did it for ten days only and they were pretty much sell-outs, so it seemed to have an effect. But really it was an homage to the old days when musicals were coming out more frequently and were somehow always a big deal when they came out.

BOG: In international markets, does the film need to be positioned differently? Are there challenges there?

LM: Well the reason that we went to Cannes ages ago was because, generally speaking, African American movies don't tend to travel well. And the foreign department kept saying 'hmmm, we won't be predicting big grosses here.' And we thought, why not? Maybe we should go to Cannes and at least get somebody's attention and say here we are, and here's what we've got. We brought twenty minutes of film, which is more than people usually show. We actually showed four chunks of musical numbers. It wasn't just a montage, it was like four nice big scenes. And the response was tumultuous. Much louder response than anyone anticipated. So we're hoping that that set us up for the international press. It gave us a firm footing over there. Also, music tends to travel well and certainly Destiny's Child and Beyonce have always had very good foreign sales. Eddie as well has a good track record, so one hopes that we bucked the norm which is that African American movies don't tend to travel well. We hope that this one does. But that is why we were doing some stuff that we might not have ordinarily done. But that's the challenge. It's also a period piece, and an American period of history that we're doing. But you hope that good word of mouth from the States has happened. And a certain amount of recognition like the Golden Globes gives you a bit of a leg up on a movie like this.

Be sure to check back next Friday for a new installment of Oscar Spotlight.

2007 Academy Award nominations and grosses

Last Updated : January 26, 2007

©2007 Box Office Guru