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Hollywood's diversity training

Hollywood was stunned when the youth-oriented action film The Fast and the Furious opened and streaked past the competition to become the No. 1 movie, with $40.1-million in ticket sales.

With its relatively unknown cast of whites, Hispanics, Asians and blacks, heavy doses of high-speed chases and a driving hip-hop soundtrack, the movie defied expectations and sent studio executives scrambling to understand why this film about the illegal street-racing subculture had become a summer hit.

But the teen-oriented movie's success isn't so surprising when one glimpses the youthful crowds flocking to theaters such as the Cineplex Odeon at Universal Citywalk in Los Angeles. With their ultra-baggy cargo shorts, doo-rags wrapped around their heads and bodies festooned with tattoos and piercings, the look of these young moviegoers mirrors the multiethnic melange of actors on the screen.

Esteban Mejia, 20, of East Hollywood, who wears long shorts and a diamond stud and hoop "cartilage pierce" in his left ear, said the racial diversity of the movie has a distinct appeal that most mainstream movies don't have. He wouldn't go to primarily white teen movies such as She's All That, Mejia said, because he doesn't relate to white kids trying to act "hard" like their Latino and black peers.

"I don't want to see Clueless," he said, recalling the 1995 Alicia Silverstone teen comedy set in Beverly Hills. "Did I live a Clueless life? No. Do I live a Clueless life? No. If there's something that I've been through, then, yeah, I'll go."

Hollywood likes to pride itself on being ahead of the cultural curve, but with last summer's sassy white versus black cheerleading comedy Bring It On grossing $68.4-million domestically and this winter's Save the Last Dance, with its once-taboo interracial dating, raking in more than $90-million in North America alone, the studios have only begun to catch up with the colorblind nature of today's MTV generation.

Rob Cohen, who directed The Fast and the Furious, said the film not only reflects today's "multiculti" youth culture without purposely drawing attention to it, but depicts what is really going on.

Cohen said surveys taken at theaters where The Fast and the Furious played showed that 50 percent of moviegoers were white, 24 percent were Hispanic, 10 percent were black and 11 percent were Asian.

"I look at this and go, "This is exactly what I'm talking about,' " Cohen said. "If that had been 80 percent ethnic and 20 percent white, that is not what we wanted. We wanted to affect the whole culture. This picture is not an "ethnic' movie, it's an everybody movie."

Attracting a young audience across the country _ a mainstay of big summer popcorn hits _ The Fast and the Furious is on track to make well over $100-million. Now Hollywood is watching the debut of Touchstone Pictures' romantic drama Crazy/beautiful, which opened earlier this month, to see if it can also draw a large multiethnic audience. The film deals with a Hispanic boy from a working-class East L.A. neighborhood who falls for a troubled girl from affluent Pacific Palisades.

Marc Abraham, one of the producers of Bring It On, noted: "There is a much more interracial aspect (in today's culture) than the way this country used to be. Any movie that reflects that _ and it doesn't mean they'll all be hits like The Fast and the Furious _ will ring true with the audience."

Over the years, studios have produced a steady diet of niche films targeting demographic markets. They know that black-themed movies can readily draw huge crowds from black communities _ Waiting to Exhale, for example _ but these films rarely capture the crossover white audience that is crucial in turning a moderately successful film into a blockbuster.

John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood was able to cross over, but few movies do. Where they do work is in broad comedies where there is an identifiable black star, such as Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence or Chris Tucker.

Studios realize they can attract a crossover audience if a film realistically portrays the ethnic mix of society, so long as it doesn't appear cynical or calculated.

"(The movie business is) certainly catching up with what's happening in society," said Thomas Carter, who directed Save the Last Dance.

"Youth culture has been shifting a long time," he said, "but because of the generation that runs the studios, there's been a certain attitude, and it has taken them a while to catch up. Places like MTV are right on the edge and totally involved in the change. In filmmaking, we lag behind."

If Hollywood had made a movie like Save the Last Dance 10 years ago, studios would have emphasized the interracial love story.

This movie, however, was sold more like Flashdance and did not sensationalize the love affair. And Carter noted that in The Fast and the Furious, little attention was paid to race.

This shift is starkly reflected in recent U.S. census statistics, which show that nearly one in three Americans is a member of a minority group.

The census also found that 6.8-million people identified themselves as belonging to two or more races.

"I think the segregated groupings are breaking down in today's America, and I think today's movie audience is a complex mix," said Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of Universal Pictures, which released The Fast and the Furious.

But Shmuger warned that if the movie industry starts making multiethnic movies "in a calculating and cynical fashion," the audience will sense that and stay away.

The Motion Picture Association of America said that in 1998, 71 percent of all movie admissions were white, 11 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic; all others accounted for 7 percent. In 1999, the fastest-growing group was Hispanic, which saw its moviegoer percentage climb to 15 percent.

Just as The Fast and the Furious shows young people of all races gathered in large groups unmindful of their racial differences and not hung up on sex, Gary Scott Thompson, one of the film's writers, said today's young movie audiences also are that way.

"It used to be a boy and a girl would go on a date," he said. "Now what's happening is groups of kids who are friends _ multiracial boys and girls _ all move in date packs together. It's like a date, but they don't consider it dating. They just consider themselves friends. Some of them might neck, some of them might not. None of them think anything much about it. They are much more open when talking about sex, teasing about it, too. They've broken down the cultural barriers."