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David Poland

By David Poland

The Lack Of Any Facts Behind Polone’s Claims About Black Entertainment

Gavin Polone, who has found a voice as a columnist explaining the world of show business through the prism of a former agent, is right about many things. In a new column entitled, “Polone: The False Circular Logic Behind Hollywood’s Resistance to Black Entertainment“, he is right that Hollywood – even more so than The Academy – is missing color in the offices where decisions are made… not just black… any color other than white. He is right that this doesn’t help the thinking process behind developing and greenlighting movies starring blacks or other ethnicities

However… as most people who have already decided what they think and what the world must think… Polone has to dip and duck and avoid reality in order to make a case that seems more, uh, black and white, than it is.

His premise: “Why have things been moving backwards, not forwards, and why are the major entertainment companies shunning a vibrant market that is only becoming more economically valuable, culturally and politically important, and ripe for crossover appeal? Here are a few of Hollywood’s main rationales:”

He makes 3 main points. The first is that Hollywood sees “black films” as niche. Here is the sentence that grabbed me: “The theory is that black and white people alike will go see Avatar or Fast and the Furious XXI, but whites won’t go see For Colored Girls…”

That’s when my head explodes. Could he possibly have picked a franchise less helpful to his argument than The Fast & The Furious?

Film 1: White guy and ethnic mutt (offered up as Italian) team up. White guy fixates on his new partner’s dark-skinned sister, while the Italian is in love with the HIspanic girl.
Film 2: Rinse, repeat. Add more ethnicity in Eva Mendes, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, and Devon Aoki.
Film 3: Is the franchise going to fade without Ambiguous Vin? Let’s focus on that Asian spin and go to Tokyo. Add Bow Wow.
Film 4: Reunion tour, now that Vin’s heat has ebbed. Add Brandon T. Jackson.
Film 5: Throw all of your ethnics into a movie with Paul Walker… add The Rock and put it in Brazil. Walker is now the only white in the room. Biggest hit yet.

You can’t find a franchise that has benefited from the addition of color more than this one. Not one.

I just wrote the other day, coincidentally, about Eva Mendes being a secret ingredient of ethnicity that has helped many movies. Besides being gorgeous and a strong actress, she is ethnic without being ETHNIC. Whether opposite Denzel, Will Smith, Nic Cage, or Will Ferrell, she isn’t the opener… but she, in my eyes, is a valuable supporting draw.

And we’ll see The Rock twice this year as an added element meant to jumpstart a wannabe franchise, now in Journey 2 and coming in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

And yet, it is 100% true that white audiences, in general, have no interest in Tyler Perry movies or any movies about The Black Experience. Perry could not be much more consistent in his solid numbers for relatively inexpensive movies. Any studio is happy to have those films, whether they are Black ethnic, horror films, chick flicks, whatever. But Tyler Perry is more Freddy Krueger and less Denzel, in that, he is an icon with a specific value to a strong base at this point… not a “movie star” in the classic sense.

Perry has been pushing Lionsgate to try to make his movies crossover from the start. And he has made headway in terms of the ad buys. They have to keep their star happy. And it doesn’t mean diddly.

Forget race for a second. What is Tyler Perry’s brand. Comedy based on the specific, narrow experience and talky drama. Who makes a career out of that? Well… Woody Allen. And even though he happened to have his biggest film this year, Allen still makes less money per film in the US than Tyler Perry… selling the white, jewish, urban experience. And even this year’s Midnight in Paris… Perry has had three films outgross that domestically in the last 6 years.

Niche realities are not inherently racist. Sorry.

Polone’s #2 is “There is a perception, especially with movies, that African-American actors don’t sell overseas —unless, of course, they are Will Smith or Denzel Washington, but only in a thriller or action movie.”

Let’s start by looking at Denzel’s career. For the first decade, he never once cracked $50m domestic, in spite of being in some Spike Lee hits (including Malcolm X), Oscar movies like Glory, and action, like Ricochet..

And then, in 1993, he was in a film with Julia Roberts and film with Tom Hanks. Both made over $50m domestic and one was just below and one just above $200m worldwide. Crimson Tide was next… $91 million, but only $66m foreign. Courage Under Fire with Meg Ryan did $59m domestic, only $42m foreign. But then The Siege did almost double overseas what it did here. Bruce Willis. Of his next eight films, only one did better than 40% of its business foreign… The Bone Collector, a thriller that also marked the emergence of Angelina Jolie.

And then… Deja Vu… his third action-y film with Tony Scott at the helm. $64m domestic, $117m foreign. 2006, after 25 years making movies, Denzel Washington starts to be able to deliver internationally. He, not to put too coarse a point on it, stopped being Black in the eyes of the rest of the world and started just being Denzel. Of seven films since then, only The Great Debaters (in which he was really a supporting character) and, oddly, The Book of Eli, have failed to do at least 50% of their business overseas. He hasn’t hit over 60% again, but he has now into his fifth year of every film he stars in making at least $150m worldwide. That’s a step up from when he was sure to do $70m domestic each time out, but the distributors were (fairly) unsure about foreign.

And no one, not even Mr Polone, can say with a straight face that the studios weren’t trying to make him a worldwide star.

Polone tries to blame the different between Tyler Perry and Will Smith on the studios’ intent: “is Good Deeds any more “niche” than 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, a big domestic and international hit about a struggling black businessman who takes custody of his son when his wife leaves him? The main difference is that the latter stars Will Smith, so it is not thought of as “niche” and Columbia marketed it all over the world as a broad-based film. But keep in mind that Will Smith only became the star that he is because he was marketed early as a “star” — not a “black star” — and audiences accepted him as such.”

Whoa, big boy. Let’s start with a, “Yes… DUH… Good Deeds is profoundly more niche with Tyler Perry as a star than the same exact script and director and Will Smith as the star.”

Will Smith saw The Legend of Bagger Vance and Ali and even the first Bad Boys perform relatively poorly overseas long before he did $145m in a drama there. It’s quite a good number, but the only film Smith has done in the last decade that failed to do $100m international was his other drama, Seven Pounds. (It did $98m. But you get the point.) In the last decade, Smith has averaged $216m overseas on each film… and that doesn’t include outliers ID4 or MiB.

You know who else has achieved this kind of number? No one. That’s why his 2 dramas can’t even begin to be compared to the potential of Tyler Perry or any other actor, Black or White.

One more thing… though many of the foreign distribution channels are owned by the same multinationals that own the US studios,the domestic distribution chiefs don’t get to make the call for the foreign ones how much money in marketing and other distribution costs are going to be set for each film.

And another… the Black issue in America is a hot button. But has Polone considered why the biggest Indian stars in the world are worth nothing in the US market? Why hasn’t Disney been able to convert American families into Miyazaki freaks? Has Polone looked at the numbers for movies starring Blacks in Japan, Russia and other countries that now make up so much of the worldwide box office? Is there a Black film star in any other other country whose success can compare to Will or Denzel… or even Tyler Perry?

Before I’m done with this “Hollywood isn’t interested in spreading Black stars” stuff… Eddie Murphy. He’s been one of the biggest stars in the world for what will be 30 years this December. 37 movies. 14 have grossed $100m domestic. 20 have grossed over $70m domestic.

Only 4 Eddie Murphy films have ever grossed 60% or better of their worldwide gross overseas. Shrek 4, Mulan, Beverly Hills Cop 3, and Meet Dave, which was such a loser here that the $39m overseas is hardly worth blowing a horn about. And less than 1/3 (11) of his titles have done 50% of their worldwide gross or better overseas.

Were they not trying hard enough?

Polone’s argument 3: “The people running networks and studios today, as it was in the past, are a remarkably homogenous group, made up of educated white people from upper-middle-class backgrounds.”

Yes. 100% true.

And yet, look at the studios that have women in charge and show me how female-centric their slates are.


You say that Amy Pascal almost lost her job when she made a slew of “chick flicks” and has since focused on Spiderman and Sandler and Ferrell and Fincher and Will Smith? Hmmm…


Polone has also disregarded one major event in all of this. When DVD started sliding, according to the insiders I have spoken to over the years, it slid harder in the Black community than in the White community. And the companies that were making a lot of the niche product… a tier of movies that were not as big as the big ones, but was still employing a lot of people for a lot of money… stopped because they couldn’t count on adding DVD sales to their core “urban” theatrical.

Yes, again… math instead of art. And math that could be overcome by making movies that found a way to cross over.

But, you know, Hollywood, evil as it is, WANTS Terrence Howard to be another Will Smith or at least a Denzel. He doesn’t end up on Law & Order: LA because the industry doesn’t want another handsome, talented movie star. And Laurence Fishburne is on CBS. And Don Cheadle’s on Showtime. And The Rock is in kids movies a lot. And Ice Cube hasn’t played a lead in a few years.

Things are far from perfect, not only for Blacks, but for all the communities underserved by Hollywood. Very bright minds need to find ways to make films work. A big part of that is making budgets that work with a realistic view of the revenue opportunity on all levels of distribution.

You know, Alexander Payne and Scorsese and Bennett Miller and Terence Malick are niche filmmakers too. Sometimes they have casts that make them something else. Sometimes they do not.

But sadly, there are niches and there are international realities of distribution and there is a white out at the studios. And claiming that the studios just aren’t trying hard enough is lame.

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16 Responses to “The Lack Of Any Facts Behind Polone’s Claims About Black Entertainment”

  1. sanj says:

    hey DP – the reel asian film festival in Toronto is coming.

    it’s got diversity more than just asians in movies

    will you go and grab some exclusive dp/30 ?

  2. cadavra says:

    Forgive me for using a TV show as another example, but the new Rob Schneider sitcom has been pulling down huge numbers, and everyone in the biz is scratching his head and wondering why…because it just doesn’t occur to them that it’s the first network series with a mostly-Latino cast since George Lopez’s sitcom was cancelled, and “those” people just aren’t on their radar.

  3. sanj says:

    article about Spiderman movie being all black cast
    with Donald Glover being Spiderman

  4. David Poland says:

    Yes, Cad… but the network actually bought the show… and it wasn’t just Rob and whatever. Cheech Marin – outed Academy member – has won nights for them before.

    That’s where I see the disconnect in these arguments. There is often this odd assumption that no one at the studio has a brain. Not true. They often make horrible decisions for dumb reasons… but they (almost always) have a reason.

  5. cadavra says:

    Networks often buy shows they think are going to fail (Ken Levine has written extensively about this on his blog) because they have slots to fill, or they want to stay on the good side of a hot producer who they think blew it this time. Up until the night it debuted, nobody thought a sitcom starring Adam Sandler’s stooge and a bunch of Mexicans was gonna make it past six episodes–including a friend who’s one of the writers. They were wrong, just as they were when CBS dumped BLUE BLOODS into the Friday-at-10 death slot and watched it become a substantial hit (albeit not in 18-49). If you think I’m wrong, let’s see how many more shows with largely-Latino casts get greenlit in the next 18 months.

  6. Paul D/Stella says:

    I imagine Alex Cross is going to do very well for Tyler Perry/Summit/Lionsgate. Surely it won’t only be sold to black audiences.

  7. Geoff says:

    Why the hell is Tyler Perry playing Alex Cross??? Seems like Idris Elba has been getting groomed for a breakout role like that….

  8. Joey says:

    And the worst thing is this…

    People keep talking about Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer when many black actors have not only been nominated, but won academy awards this last decade.

    Yet when the first mexican actor ever is nominated for an academy award people turn their heads.

    As a mexican I am happy that people are talking about the “black” issue, but why is the latino community such an invisible one?

    You read the LA times and you wouldn’t for a second think there were non-whites in this city for crying out loud.

  9. Joey says:

    Answering my own question… Maybe it’s because Bichir has no chance at winning and the awesome duo of Viola and Octavia are locks.

    Either way, Bichir is a brilliant actor. I just hope he’s given the opportunity to show it.

  10. David Poland says:

    Because, Geoff, the color Hollywood sees is green… and TP seems to be a guarantee of some green. Idris Elba is just great… not box office.

  11. bulldog68 says:

    I could still see Tyler Perry being a bit of a turn off DP. Some people just can’t stand him. And following in Morgan Freeman’s footsteps, my wish is that they go with the person who I think is the better actor and brings some weight to the role.

    I agree that Idris is not exactly box office, but if your sell is more about the return of the character Alex Cross to the big screen than who plays him, I think it could work.

  12. Edward Havens says:

    Who the f–k is Gavin Polone again?


  13. Geoff says:

    Yeah, Dave – seriously, if they are looking to focus on the brand of a popular character and really want an Alex Cross movie to break out, then Tyler Perry could be a deterrent to a bunch of potential audience. It could be analagous to casting Jonah Hill as Jason Bourne (bizarre choice, I know) – the casting creates some baggage that will cause many to take it less seriously.

    Obvious example of pulling it off with a name that is respected but not big box office is Daniel Craig as Bond.

  14. David Poland says:

    Oh, I agree… they are taking a huge risk casting Perry. Better to make a great series.

    And who knows? Maybe Perry has a hard ass in him. Haven’t seen evidence of it though.

    Another factor may be that the films did so well with Morgan Freeman… also not a hard guy.

    Don’t know.

  15. leahnz says:

    really? i think (esp) younger freeman had that nice i-might-be-smiling-and-sound-zen-but-you-fuck-with-me-im-gonna-slash-you-up-the-ass-before-you-know-what’s-happened glint in his eye, the hint of zen to deadly intensity that says ‘you better believe it’.

    in comparison tyler perry looks like he might be able to pull off ‘stern’. (but i’m no perry aficionado)

  16. pops3284 says:

    a big problem to me is that black outlet dont shine enough light on black independent film. Ih ave showtime and am a regular contributor on kickstarter and there is some really good independent filmmakers and actors that a lot of folks dont give credit to.

    On the tv side I am frustrated by the lack of black/ latino sitcoms on regular tv. There are a lot more multicultural casts like greys, svu, csi etc and greys and practice give big story arc to black actors making them fully formed human beings outside of their work. I do feel that network tv has missed out on not having more latino representation on their network as univision seems to regularly beat CW and sometimes beats nbc in the ratings. It is kinda surprising that ugly betty which had a solid run and rob is the only mainstream network to take advantage of the demographic. its just befuddling that nbc and the cw really don’t wanna try anything like that

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