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When Paramount Withheld 'Coming To America' From The Press, Not Knowing What They Had

by Tambay A. Obenson
April 5, 2013 1:37 PM
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This may already be widely-known, but I wasn't aware of it until I watched the below video yesterday, so I'll assume others weren't either.

While browsing through YouTube clips of Roger Ebert (in light of his death yesterday), I learned something about Eddie Murphy's Coming To America that I didn't know previously.

He and Gene Siskel appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show in May 1988, about a month before Coming To America was released, to preview the summer movie season. 

During their conversation with Oprah, they talked about the film not being screened for the press (as is custom) before it was released in theaters, which, as Siskel opined, meant that the studio wasn't confident in how it would be received.

In fact, Ebert goes on to say that the film was indeed screened once for the press in New York, but reactions to the film by those who attended that screening was so terrible that the studio, Paramount, decided it best to cancel all press screenings for the film, ahead of its release.

So neither Ebert nor Siskel had seen it, even though, as they state, they requested to see the film, but were told it wasn't available. 

Siskel goes on to say that he was offended that the studio withheld the film from the press, and it reflected even worse on the film that they apparently didn't have much confidence in it to screen it for the press.

It's a funny and interesting conversation, and all worth listening to.

What's even more hilarious is that, despite the studio's apparent worries, the film went on to become a blockbuster! In fact, it was the 3rd highest grossing film of 1988, taking home $128,152,301 domestic (adjusted for inflation, that's about $250 million in today's money). Globally, it grossed $288,752,301, or about $550 million in today's dollars.

And it's gone on to become a comedy classic! 

As Siskel emphasized to Oprah, obviously the studios don't always know what exactly they have on their hands.

As for what Siskel and Ebert eventually thought of Coming To America, well, watch their review of the film below, after you watch their appearance on Oprah (the conversation on Coming To America starts at the 8:30 mark):

And here's their review of the film:

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  • getthesenets | April 7, 2013 1:54 PMReply

    Hollywood Shuffle is one of the best films of all time, and the Sneaking Into the Movies" skit/segment was GENIUS.

    "man I hate those film critics on tv.....especially the FAT ONE......the FAT ONE with the, he thinks he knows EVERY-THANG...they need some real brothers up there...givin up the REAL-DEAL"

    RIP to Ebert ,I saw when S&E reviewed Hollywood Shuffle and I laughed the whole time because I'm sure Siskel teased Ebert the WHOLE day because of the "fat one with glasses" line....Townsend is from Chicago so I'm sure it was Ebert he was clowning.

    What makes the scene so clever is that they are sending up and pulling EVERY card of the "film critic" industry.....they talk about the "implausibility" of the actions of fool ass criminals in Dirty Harry films...and then when they review the Zombie Pimp of the guys says "Yo, that ish could really happen"


  • Miles Ellison | April 6, 2013 7:02 PMReply

    "Personally, I don't blame the studios nor film critics for our present dismal representation in the film industry. I believe the buck stops squarely on our shoulders. And, there is a plethora of reasons why that's true."

    This hits the nail squarely on the head.

  • CC | April 6, 2013 6:53 PMReply

    "Showing again that gatekeepers like the media and movie critics are the real enemies of black movies"

    Hmmmm.... I don't know if that's a fair statement. I believe the gatekeepers know black folks are hard to "gauge". This movie came out at the end of what some consider as the blaxploitation period. It was a time in which some were vehemently objecting to negative stereotypes. Yet, Coming To America was complete with "negative" black images... it WAS all there.

    We saw the dreadful plight of the inner city neighborhood and the deplorable conditions inside the high-rise apartments. Who flinched when the over-the-top reverend was ogling the parade of black women who none of us would take home to their mother? And, although we all laughed at the Soul-Glow jokes, as of late, Chris Rock has taken a beating over putting our hair on display.

    Then there's the barber shop scenes, where should I start? Should I first mention Eddie Murphy's characters or Arsenal Hall's? They were all stereotypes-maximus, so I won't even go there. But poor John Amos, he went from being JJ "Dyn-O-mite" Walker's no job having father to... you know... y'all saw it... a stereotypical fatherly black clown.

    So, given the era of the movie's premiere and its above dynamics, along with the fickled ways of black folks, I tend to believe the studio's "doubt" was justified. Think about it, reflecting on the heat Tyler Perry presently receives from his comedies with similar themes/characters, if Coming To America came out this year, would it receive the same "welcome" and applause as days gone by?

    Personally, I don't blame the studios nor film critics for our present dismal representation in the film industry. I believe the buck stops squarely on our shoulders. And, there is a plethora of reasons why that's true.

  • Seat filler | April 6, 2013 6:35 AMReply

    Showing again that gatekeepers like the media and movie critics are the real enemies of black movies.

  • Miles Ellison | April 5, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    The audience at the screening was watching with their hoods on. They were also disappointed that there was no blackface or dumb black African savages.

  • Alex | April 5, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Cuba Gooding jr @ 2.28 gets me every time. Impressive for the time it was made and considering Murphys stake as a just for laughs actor.

  • miktal | April 5, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    No critic can be 100% right about any film, but this is just one of many I strongly disagreed with Ebert. He lost many many marks as a critic with his high score for, The Phantom Menace for example, surely one of the worst films ever made. Eddie gave a very professional and reserved performance in CTA, which allowed the comedy to come out in other areas of a well written script. It simply didn't need the African version of Billy Ray Valentine. Also, Ebert probably wouldn't of understood the running joke behind Soul-Glow, which was absolutely hilarious! Eriq La Salle`s hair just had me in stitches.

  • getthesenets | April 5, 2013 4:27 PM

    Ebert's reviews at one point started reflecting the view of a white person who had REAL Black friends..not acquaintances, not colleagues, but friends.
    He had married a Black woman.

    I forget the film, but his review mentioned something that only Black people or those with close relationships with Black people know about....maybe it was razor bumps or something..I forget.

    I think it made him a better critic because he was able to pick up at least SOME of the references and jokes in non white films.

  • ALM | April 5, 2013 2:07 PMReply

    This confirms one of the posts that I made yesterday. These studios have always had and continue to have a major superiority complex. They are clueless to what the American population really wants to see on film and in television.

    How about they fire a few of these studio executives and start polling the public about what they want to see. Better yet, hire a panel of REAL movie goers to monitor trends in public viewing preferences. If there already are people in these types of roles at the studios, those people FAILING badly at their jobs.

    Major changes need to be made from the top. Then they will stop wasting money on things films like "Waterworld", "John Carter", and "Pluto Nash".

  • ALM | April 5, 2013 2:09 PM

    *are FAILING

  • Erik W | April 5, 2013 1:50 PMReply

    Very interesting.

    FYI...May 1988, not May 2008. :)

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