Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How many times do we need to re-learn that blacks and women buy movie tickets?

"African-Americans buy movie tickets. A lot of 'em. 

"If this concept makes you slap your forehead and exclaim in wonder, then you must be running a Hollywood studio. What, exactly, is it going to take to make this point sink in? Lord knows, I'm bored of it: It feels like every other year, I write an article that says, ''Wow! With (insert here: ''Waiting to Exhale,'' ''Soul Food,'' ''Love Jones,'' ''Boyz 'N the Hood,'' etc), Hollywood is realizing it's time to change its ways! Hold your breath because here come more movies that aren't just stereotypical hood flicks!'' If you listened and held your breath, you must be in a coma by now."

That above quote is from an Entertainment Weekly article by Rebecca Asher-Walsh.  Given that The Butler recently opened to nearly $25 million in its first weekend and then maintained the number one spot at the box office in Week 2 with a $16.5 million, it probably wouldn't surprise you that entertainment pundits are pointing out that Hollywood nets decent business when it remembers that there is a vast array of demographics to market to. 

What might surprise you is that article was written in 1999 - and it makes points that are still relevant today.  How is it that we still manage to be shocked that "wow! Black people buy movie tickets too!" when so many of the films aimed at that demographic manage to pull in the money.  Heck, if you check the EW archives, you'll see they've been "learning" this lesson since at least 1997.

I said last week that if I was running a studio I'd bet more on lower-budgeted projects.  I'd also try to market several films to minority audiences.  Tyler Perry has been a writer, director or both on 14 films in his career, with a lifetime total gross of $719 million.  That's an average of about $51 million a film.

Perry isn't in Michael Bay territory - but he doesn't make Michael Bay-sized movies.  A few of them have cost $20 million, but several of them cost far less. Budget figures aren't available for all of his films, so I can't provide an absolute total or average cost.  But it's pretty clear one factor in how prolific he is is the fact that he brings in an audience that more than covers his costs.

Yes, by now Tyler Perry is a brand unto himself, but who's to say other black filmmakers couldn't accomplish the same feats if given the chance?

The Butler's figures are also remarkable because the week-to-week drop in box office was a mere 33%.  Hilariously, conservative sites tried to point to this drop as a "win" for their "boycott," not realizing that ALL movies decline in their second weeks and that a 67% hold in box office is actually pretty damn fantastic. (Most major releases are consider impressive if they can hold half of their opening weekend gross into the second weekend.)

I'm not just harping on Hollywood being ignorant of African-American audiences.  We've gone through the same crap with female-targeted films too.  I swear I remember that as far back as The First Wives Club, there were articles about how Hollywood was poised to wake up and make more female-centered films in the wake of that movie's success.

For now, a real problem is that the movie business is increasingly focused on the global market and black movies don't really travel as well overseas.  It's the same problem the lower-budget movies face - it's not as sexy to chase a few million in profit when you can take a swing for a billion.  I think of it as the same psychology that makes people decide a $1 lotto ticket isn't worth it for a chance at "only" $20 million... but $75 million? Wow, I'd better get a ton of tickets!

I've been asked if I see The Butler changing anything for African American voices hoping to get their stories told.  I wish I could assure those aspiring writers that Hollywood follows the money and that all the old walls will come down.  Unfortunately, there's a lot of history telling me that this lesson will be forgotten until the next Tyler Perry opus. 

Addendum: Since I composed this post, it has since been suggested to me that it's simplistic to take the commonly-held industry belief that "black movies don't travel" at face value.  And I admit, there are places that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, so let's unpack a few variables. 

Will Smith is a global superstar, for instance. In the UK, a rather large portion of their pop culture celebrities are black as well.  It certainly doesn't hurt that Smith makes tentpole movies, but I guess the larger point there is that it's not impossible to sell an African-American led film to a foreign audience.  The international figures on Fast & Furious films (or reaching back even further, The Matrix) also might be an indication of possible inroads there.  Right now, we consider them hits largely because of their "event movie status."  Maybe they could be "gateway drugs" into other minority-headlined films.

So I guess that while we "know" studios don't expend the effort and the marketing dollars to release an African-American film abroad because they've not seen results, that could be causing a sort of vicious cycle. Money isn't being spent because there's no money to be made, but perhaps no money has been made because none has been spent.

So yeah, add that to one of my "fantasy studio exec" initiatives: "Expand marketing efforts for African-American films abroad in an effort to see if there is a market to be tapped."  After all, isn't the whole point of this post that we need to stop having to be re-taught the same lessons all over again?


  1. "For now, a real problem is that the movie business is increasingly focused on the global market and black movies don't really travel as well overseas."

    Yes, THIS. It's a widely accepted fact in the world of foreign sales that audiences, particularly in Europe, are prejudiced. They have little to no interest in "black" films. Will & Denzel's work is the exception. Look at RED TAILS, for example. $50m domestically. $300k overseas.

  2. Thank you for this post. I, too would like to take issue with "black doesn't travel". Right now Django unchained is still number 1 in Germany. ""Django Unchained," which Sony is distributing overseas, opened in January and is still No. 1 in Germany with $51 million." (as of Aug. 21, 2013)

    The Washington Post did an article in May about this myth as well. []

    I agree that it's probably more about the cycle that you mentioned as well as the lottery ticket phenomena. Everyone wants a huge hit.

  3. I just wish more salt and pepper through All movies would occur. Sure, movies about the "plight" would appeal to a black audience and pull in dollars, but that's the problem - why do black movies have to be about the plight to make inroads? Reflect the audience in all films and progress will happen.

  4. What are you guys talking about? Didn't you see Hancock?

  5. As a kid my whole family watched METEOR MAN on German TV and we loved it, so I don't think this is true :D