In The Weekly Standard, Sonny Bunch lists a bunch of reasons why Universal is downplaying Spike Lee’s involvement in Inside Man, which stars A-list names Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster:
Spike Lee, quite simply, is not a profitable director, and he hasn’t been for some time. His first two major motion pictures, School Daze and Do the Right Thing, were both produced for around $6.5 million. The first made more than double its budget domestically, and the second is his most profitable film to date (other than The Original Kings of Comedy, which owes its success far more to the standup comedians performing in it than the man behind the camera), with a domestic gross of $27.5 million. His winning streak continued for two more films: Jungle Fever made an $18.5 million profit, and Malcolm X brought home just over $14 million more than its budget. Since then, however, Lee hasn’t made a drama that ended up in the black. Some have been modest failures (Crooklyn, for example, lost only about $400,000). Others have been much bigger flops. (She Hate Me cost $8 million to produce and brought in less than $400,000 at the box office. Clockers lost even more money; the $25 million piece was almost $12 million in the red.)
The question becomes, then, how does one make a Spike Lee movie profitable? Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment is probably banking on the fact that white audiences are unlikely to attend what they imagine will be a two hour lesson on why society is racist. Removing the “Spike Lee Joint” tag from his picture will almost certainly increase its marketability at the box office with whites. It’s not too much of a stretch to guess that Inside Man might wind up as Lee’s highest grossing movie; his previous best is Malcolm X’s $48.4 million.
Well, it’s not like a director has to make money to keep his name in the Hollywood rolodex these days. (Unlike, say, Hollywood’s first 80 years of existence. That loud “thump” you just heard was Orson Welles turning over in his grave; his films had a similar level of unprofitability. But unlike Spike, he was simply born far too soon to fashion a bankable directorial career from unbankable movies.)