EXCLUSIVE: The Five Heartbeats, Robert Townsend’s story about the trials and tribulations of a band of five talented guys in a musical group during the rise of Motown, is on its way to Broadway. The film was released by 20th Century Fox on March 28, 1991, and the documentary on the making of has been playing in exclusive runs in New York and Los Angeles this month to qualify for Oscar in hopes of landing a spot in the Best Feature Documentary category.
The Broadway play will “tell a similar story with music that people know from the movie, but there is a composer, Grammy-Award winner, a guy who has won some big awards who already said he will write an original song for us,” said Townsend. He told Deadline that he is in negotiations with a Broadway producer and is writing the Broadway play with Kennen Ivory Wayans,” his original partner on the The Five Heartbeats’ movie script.
Taking this story to Broadway will bring it full circle for Townsend, who started his acting career in theater — first in the Windy City as part of ExBag (which later become the Chicago Theater Company) and then in New York acting Off Broadway with Woodie King, Jr. and the New Federal Theater troupe.
Making the Five Heartbeats, written, directed, produced and narrated by Townsend, chronicled the process of moviemaking not only for an indie filmmaker coming off a hit (Hollywood Shuffle) but also for an African American offering up different roles for actors that had not been readily available on the big screen. The Five Heartbeats was initially developed at Warner Bros., before the studio put it into turnaround citing script and story issues.
After that, every other studio passed on it before it landed at management company Morra Brezner and Steinberg. They loved the script and got it going with their friend Joe Roth who was then chairman at 20th Century Fox. (Luckily for Townsend, Roth had also been an indie filmmaker before rising to the head of the studio).
The Five Heartbeats came out in a year when there was only one African American marketing executive at a major studio for minority marketing (as it was called at the time), and that was at Disney when they hired in Nestle executive Alan Dinwiddie out of Chicago to market to all segments of the population. Dinwiddie had handled the Eastman Kodak account in its participation in Tri-Star Pictures’ Civil War epic Glory, for which Denzel Washington won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. There had been only one previous African American marketing executive in Hollywood, Ashley Boone at MGM (his sister is Cheryl Boone-Isaacs former marketing exec and past president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
While packaged goods marketers like consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and other national advertisers had been marketing to different audience segments for many years, the motion picture industry in the 1990s was slow on the uptake. Extremely and very surprisingly so. Disney’s then marketing president Bob Levin — who had come from the Chicago ad agency world — tried to change all that with the hiring of fellow Chicagoan Dinwiddie.
So, The Five Heartbeats entered into an environment in a Hollywood that had little experience marketing (or media buying) for a black audience, or for any minority for that matter (including Hispanics, which as a group was a billion-dollar-plus consumer spending powerhouse).
Times have, thankfully, changed. The script, which was greenlit with an $8.7M budget by then Fox chairman Roth, was written by Townsend and Wayans and was inspired by The Temptations and The Dells (who were technical advisors on the film). Making the Five Heartbeats maps out the, at times, excruciating time pressures to bring the picture in on time and within a manageable budget, the passion of the talent and filmmaker himself as he recounts fighting repeatedly to keep a key scene in the movie, and compromising on others. He grapples with his desire to give up his dream of casting Denzel Washington for the role of the brooding but soulful Eddie, and landing instead on the talented actor Michael Wright.
In his narration, Townsend remembers how Fox brought in a bond company executive as a constant on-set reminder (and pressure) to keep the movie on time and on budget. Next, the studio brought in an editor to look over the film. The Fox marketing machine at the time was a terrific one and the film tested through the roof, but they had a film that they weren’t sure how to market.
Only 20 days before The Five Heartbeats was to land in theaters, the Mario Van Peebles-directed New Jack City was released. While New Jack City was well-received by critics, it was the kind of movie that drew urban gangs, and with that came violence. One person ended up dead in a shooting outside a theater after the film, while violence and arrests were taking place throughout the country. In Los Angeles alone, there was rioting in the streets when a theater oversold the film and couldn’t provide enough tickets. In Westwood, where the picture was playing, shops were looted resulting in the arrests of numerous people.
Given this, the industry itself was struggling with the results and were cautious about releasing any film that was targeted to a black audience. Exhibitors and moviegoers alike were afraid. Fox’s marketing team were rightly concerned about how to market The Five Heartbeats. The head of distribution at the time was Tom Sherak who told me at the time that it was important to show that not all films targeting a black audience was going to result in violence. Still, in the halls of Fox, they didn’t know what to expect. No one did.
Townsend believed the marketing conundrum was “because they had a film that they hadn’t seen before about five men of color and friendship and bonding. If it was a gangster picture or drug picture, they knew how to sell that, but these were not themes you traditionally found in a black film. When we tested it, everything tested high … the performances, the cast, everything. Everything tested really high. But, this was at the time of New Jack City when there was a shooting and everyone was on high alert. I think someone made a decision to pull back on the drama. But because the trailer didn’t tell a story and there was no real drama, it looked like a music video on the 60s, People didn’t know what to expect and so (moviegoers) said, ‘meh, I’m not going to go see that.”
The film, which received mixed reviews from critics but a nice one at the time from Roger Ebert, didn’t open. The majority, black-cast film about the dissension and ultimate camaraderie between five talented singers only garnered $1.6M in its debut weekend and grossed a mere $8.75M at the box office during its entire run.
It wasn’t until the film came out on home video that it found its niche with its core audience, and The Five Heartbeats now airs through the holidays on network television (BET, Bounce). On social media, about 300 million clips from the film have also been shared.
Making The Five Heartbeats premiered on Dec. 3 in New York and began screening in theaters on Friday, Dec. 7 and will continue its run through this Thursday, Dec. 13th. It also played in Los Angeles exclusively at Laemmle’s NoHo 7 on Dec. 6.