The Royal Treatment for Queen Latifah


By Ronald Grover When it comes to hot stars and megahits, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) may not be the first studio most people think of. The once-proud lion lacks the Miramax magic for producing prestigious -- and Oscar-winning -- hits. And despite its biennial James Bond flick, it lacks Universal's way with -- or budget for -- blockbusters.

It does, however, seem to have a knack for homing in on the next superstar. MGM signed last year's Best Actor and Best Actress winners -- Denzel Washington and Halle Berry -- before the duo picked up their gold statuettes. And the studio helped make Reese Witherspoon a huge star with Legally Blonde. Now in MGM's sights: Queen Latifah.

It isn't alone in wanting to pay homage to the Queen. The 33-year-old rapper was a scene-stealer in Chicago, garnering her first Oscar nomination for a mesmerizing performance as the on-the-take prison matron, Mama Morton. (In my humble opinion, she should have won the Oscar.) And she's bringing down the house in the Steve Martin comedy of the same name. Her rowdy performance as a slugging ex-con helped propel the movie to the year's hottest opening -- and to $100 million in box-office receipts in only three weeks.

WEAK SISTER WINS? Little wonder that the one-time Burger King employee, whose real name is Dana Owens, is keeping her agents at William Morris plenty busy these days, with just about every studio clamoring for her services. Disney (DIS), which produced Bringing Down the House, has another project it wants to produce with her. Fox (NWS) is after her for the remake the 1998 French comedy Taxi, with writer Luc Besson rewriting the story to feature a female driver.

In all this high-powered dealmaking, however, the first studio to bring out the next Queen Latifah project may very well be MGM, long Hollywood's weak sister. Indeed, according to MGM President Chris McGurk, Kirk Kerkorian's studio is "two, maybe three weeks" away from signing the suddenly very popular Latifah to help it create a franchise out of its Barbershop.

That film, which starred Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer in a story set in a South Chicago barbershop, was a surprise hit for MGM last year, grossing a none-too-shabby $75 million. More important, perhaps, it was one of MGM's most profitable releases, having been made for a puny $12 million. And since MGM spent about the same relatively insignificant amount to market the film to a core audience of inner-city African Americans, you can see why it wants more of the same.

BEAUTY-SHOP CAMEO. MGM says Barbershop reflects its strategy of making low-budget films that have a shot of becoming franchises. That's what it did with Legally Blonde -- with a sequel scheduled for July and an ABC comedy series coming in 2004. McGurk says Barbershop's cast and its writer, Mark Brown, have agreed to do a remake for fairly modest salaries, taking a piece of the box office instead to keep the price tag in the low $20 million range. MGM is hustling to get Barbershop 2 out by Christmas or early in 2004, says the studio president.

Queen Latifah would be the key to ratcheting up the film into a full-fledged franchise. MGM intends to have her do a cameo role in Barbershop 2 as the owner of a beauty shop next door, before signing her to do her own Beauty Shop film, to be released later in the year.

How much MGM would have to pay? Well, that's the sticky part. The very hot actress, who was paid $1 million for Bringing Down the House, now commands a queen's ransom -- close to $10 million, a figure that could well be out of MGM's range. McGurk says he nevertheless expects to sign the star. Her publicist didn't return phone calls requesting comment for this story.

TASTY CARROTS. I suspect one inducement MGM will hold out to Latifah will be creative control -- something no one in Hollywood seems able to resist. MGM confirms that the star and her manager, Shakim Compere, will probably produce the film, while Latifah's new record label will oversee its soundtrack.

Another possible carrot: MGM will probably let her rummage around in its library of films, which include such one-time popular "blacksploitation" flicks as I'm Gonna Get You, Sucka and the comedy Cooley High, for material for future projects. That's what MGM did with Berry, who has signed to star in a remake of the Pam Grier action film Foxy Brown.

Hollywood being the way it is, it's possible Queen Latifah could make a slew of movies before she gets around to making one for MGM. But you have to hand it to the old lion: It knows when to pounce. Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online


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