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David Poland

By David Poland

The Myth of Movie Industry Myths: Exporting Films Of Color

There are things that are true and there are things that we want to believe.

The media loves to accuse Hollywood of all manner of malfeasance. (This piece claims to correct a myth and this piece claims that Hollywood is so invested in keeping women and people of color down that it is lying to itself.)

But often, the attacks are inaccurate, and even insulting, as well as ignorant of how Hollywood works, who is making choices and what the real intentions are.

There are plenty of ways to manipulate the system from the outside (that’s us, media). Shame works… to some degree. Studio execs take action to avoid public embarrassment. But in my decades of experience watching this industry, that will be only a temporary adjustment.

Things move slowly. Change happens. If you look at the face (and faces) of movies today, there is a marked difference from 20 years ago. There are still a lot of white male faces. A majority. Too many. Yes. But still, there is change. There is change in the content. The things characters say and do. And even much greater openness to color-blind and gender-blind and orientation-blind casting. Not enough. No.

But today, I want to get away from feelings and opinions about how movies starring or depicting people of color work outside of the U.S. and just look at numbers.

Every year, there are between 130 and 160 wide releases (over 1,000 screens at some point in the run) in the domestic market. Statistically, about 20 of those should be “of color” to match American society.

Here is the count from the last 5 years (2012 – 2016)
2016 – 21
2015 – 10
2014 – 12
2013 – 20
2012 – 12

The thing that jumps out immediately is that the fewest films “of color” released in any of these years was in 2015, which not coincidentally became the “Oscar So White” year.

Conversely, 2016, which saw a big bump in nominations for people of color was also, not coincidentally, the biggest year for wide releases of films “of color” in this survey.

We have had 46 wide releases in the U.S. so far in 2017, about a third of the films that will roll out. There have been seven movies led by people of color.  So that seems like a pretty good year coming. But I only see seven or so similar movies on the schedule. Ideally, that number will evolve upward, including wider expansion than currently planned for smaller titles.

Domestic grossers over $100 million will leads of color:

2016 – 5
2015 – 4
2014 – 1
2013 – 2
2012 – 5

But to the question, what about international?

In recent years, the standard for international is that most (about two-thirds of) American-made wide release films generate more than 50% of their overall box office from international markets.

How many films led by people of color are generating 50% or better overseas?

2016 – 6 of 21
2015 – 2 of 10
2014 – 3 of 12
2013 – 7 of 20
2012 – 4 of 12

That’s 22 of 75, or 29%… or less than half the rate that is the norm in the industry for films that have been released widely in North America.

But it’s worse than that, because the other alleged myth is the perception that a select group of movie stars of color are the “only ones” who do well overseas. But of those 22 films that did 50%+ overseas, 10 starred with Will Smith, Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel. (I’m not counting Moana for The Rock.)

Denzel Washington didn’t have a movie in the past five years that made over half its grosses overseas. In a remarkable career in which he has been a consistent box office draw in America for over 20 years, he has had only six movies in which more than half the box office came from international. And only one, Deja Vu, crossed that 50% mark without a white co-star who was a solid international box office draw. But the truth is, when Denzel started doing around 40% overseas consistently (on top of his expected domestic $70m & up), he was marked as a worldwide draw.

Of the other 11 films of color that grossed over 50% internationally, two were Best Picture winners (12 Years A Slave and Moonlight), three more were Best Picture nominees (Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lion). Two were animated (Moana and The Book of Life), two specifically targeted Spanish-speaking audiences (Instructions Not Included and The 33), there was a biopic about an international figure (Mandela), a comedy (Scary Movie 5) and one tentpole that was dominated by white stars (Independence Day: Resurgence).

Maybe you don’t like these statistics.

Creed only grossed 37% of its gross internationally. But that 37% was $64 million. Seriously impressive. The Butler did $60 million, though that was only 34%. It would be wrong for anyone to say that there are no success stories.

A dozen films with black leads did over $100 million internationally in the last five years. But again, aside from the Big 3 and animation, there was only ID4:2 and that didn’t lean too hard on Jessie T. Usher or make him a movie star.

Here’s another stat…in the past five Oscar seasons, three Best Picture winners did over 50% of their box office overseas and two did not. The two that didn’t were Spotlight and Argo.

There are very real arguments that can be made about why films of color do not play as well overseas as other films. Does the system downgrade these films, signalling audiences in other countries to pay less attention? Is there significantly less being spent on marketing, given the history? Has the bias been so institutionalized that there are a hundred small things holding these films back in other countries?

Still, it would be dishonest not to question openly whether other countries are, in their moviegoing mainstreams, less racially tolerant than the U.S.

I don’t have an answer. The Intouchables, with a black man and a white man as co-leads, did record-breaking business in most countries of the world other than the U.S., racking up over $400 million. Omar Sy is an international star now. And the failure of the film in the U.S. points much more at Weinstein focusing on remake rights than the film itself.

Explain to me why Queen of Katwe performed better in the U.S. than A United Kingdom, but not as well internationally. I don’t know. (I could come up with a theory, but that’s not the point.) The two films are different, but both are fight-your-way-to-a-feel-good with roots on the African continent with the same lead actor. Theories aside, is there an answer to this question?

With due respect, when you are arguing that Straight Outta Compton is a shining example of international success, you are starting with an illusion. Did Universal expect it to play overseas? No. Is $40 million pretty strong for the film internationally? Yes. Would Universal or any other studio budget based on expecting $40 million or more international on their next black-historical-musical-character film? No, of course not. Not any more than they would budget a film like Get Out anticipating a $100m domestic gross… even months after it actually happened for Get Out. It has nothing to do with color. (Jason Blum is still very white.)

12 Years a Slave did $6.6 million in Italy while Creed did $650k, Selma did $1.8 million, and Collateral Beauty did $10 million. How do you sort out those numbers and come up with an argument about how films with people of color play in Italy? There are theories, but they all seem nebulous when you look closer at slices of history.

All that said… if you want to suggest  that there is a positive trend line – and I think there is – and that opportunity is limited by false claims that success in this direction is only an anomaly, you cannot make the argument by arguing only the anomalies. Regardless of what Twitter might have to say, the people who control the pursestrings – even the “good” ones – are smarter than that. They understand risk. And they understand that there are difficulties to be taken into account. Of course, the same is true of every movie that is made.

Trends in the movie business are not created by exceptions, but by repeatable rules. Those rules can and often do change, but more slowly than many of us would like.

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2 Responses to “The Myth of Movie Industry Myths: Exporting Films Of Color”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    Many films are manufactured for international audiences. A few are led by black characters and actors, many more are not. Lots of the many films led by white actors are not expected to have an international appeal, some are. And there are many movies which are not particularly black or white, sci-fi with mixed casts comes to mind.

    I appreciate the article. it’s very good, but I see it as a starting point for your analysis and look forward to more of your reasoning as it develops.

    For myself, I’d like to see more movies with mixed casts, even when the casting may not be historically correct. But there are some genres of white-driven films I’ve seen enough for my lifetime, British upper classes, for example. Don’t hate them. Just won’t bother with them. The concerns of the British upper classes have already been given more than enough consideration by me considering they are a tiny part of the world. Movies about actors, WWII, southern hicks, yuppies, the upper West Side, Texas, LA Noir. Pretty jaded about those topics, too. Movies like Moonlight, Beasts and Precious are just more interesting cause they are relatively fresh.

  2. EtGuild2 says:

    Each movie is its own thing in this arena, and there really is only a jittery trend line, but when I see Universal taking the time and care they did with GET OUT internationally (the thing may get to $50 million which is frankly a miracle given the subject matter), I’m encouraged. My theory is when studios actually believe they aren’t investing in a waste, there’s money to be made.

    THE INTOUCHABLES is a low point for ethnic-led films. It’s a monstrosity. THE VISITOR drained of every drop of subtlety and nuance. I hope we look back on it as a relic from a different era.

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