Moonlight, Straight Outta Compton fight myth of black films’ overseas failure
|Toronto Star 01 Apr 2017 at 10:31|
On his way to winning a Best Picture Oscar for Moonlight, a film made for a minuscule $1.5 million, writer-director Barry Jenkins took time between awards-season red carpet appearances for a six-city European promotion tour. It was time well spent.
Moonlight, about a poor black boy living in the projects of Miami and struggling with his sexuality, wasn’t supposed to be the kind of movie that wins the Best Picture Oscar . Its modest coming-of-age narrative, unconventional story structure and outsider characters with no mega stars made it, as filmmaker Mark Duplass said recently with admiration, “a bit of a miracle” that it even reached U.S. theatres.
Certainly, it’s not the kind of movie that was expected to make money overseas. After all, says a long-standing Hollywood myth, black films don’t travel.
Yet Moonlight has made more than $28 million (all figures U.S.) at the international box office.
“This black film is definitely selling overseas,” Jenkins said on the red carpet for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, just after he’d returned from Europe.
It’s one more way Moonlight has bucked conventional wisdom.
“Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug,” says Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films, which primarily produces films with African-American casts. “It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.”
For 1988’s Coming to America, the anomaly was the comedic genius of Eddie Murphy, who “transcended race” when the film grossed $160.6 million internationally for a $288.8-million worldwide take. (Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, Kevin Hart, Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle are other box office champs for whom the “transcended race” label has been applied.)
For 1995’s Bad Boys and its 2003 sequel — which pulled in a combined $210.3 million internationally and $414.7 million worldwide — it was that the film was an action flick, never mind leads Smith, Martin Lawrence and Gabrielle Union.
For 2015’s Straight Outta Compton, a $40.4-million payoff internationally (and $201.6 million worldwide), it was the popular
Even as three-time Oscar nominee Hidden Figures, with its predominantly black cast, has triumphed at the box office, the myth persists.
The latest picture to face the international test head-on is Get Out, from writer-director Jordan Peele. While the social thriller starring Daniel Kaluuya has been the talk of Hollywood since its Feb. 24 premiere, the film is just beginning to be released internationally, an effort by the studio to first test the film among its intended American audience, then strategically roll it out in other countries.
“If a movie is good, it should transcend borders, cultural difference and ideologies,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst with comScore who analyzes box office returns. “If you have a great movie, I think it can play anywhere.”
“The confusion starts with the definition of ‘black film,’ as if it was a genre,” says director and producer Reginald Hudlin. “There are musicals, action movies, comedies, horror films, but ‘black’ is not a storytelling genre. And the fact that these movies (with black casts) that can be wildly different are all put in the same category as if they’re all the same, ignoring actual genres, which can have a huge effect on its ability to travel, already leads to people misunderstanding its worldwide box office potential.”
For an American independent film to make it into international theatres, a producer works with international sales agents to license the rights to overseas distributors. The licensing process often begins with the sales agent attempting to pre-sell the film, persuading local distributors in international markets to purchase rights before the movie is complete.
While some films get purchased during the presale process, international buyers can also choose to wait until they see a finished film at film festivals or film markets.
At last year’s American Film Market, Moonlight was “one of the most sought-after movies,” months before it landed any awards-season nominations, says Jonathan Deckter, president and chief operating officer of Voltage Pictures. The reason for such high interest in the film wasn’t obvious.
There are general ideas about what types of films do better in certain countries, though there are exceptions to every rule. Dramas, for example, don’t play as well in Germany as they do in Britain. Comedies, unless they have huge stars, don’t play as well in France, Italy, Germany and Spain.
And for those films that happen to have black casts, there is, in fact, a consistent market interested in seeing such stories; Britain, Australia, United Arab Emirates and South Africa are always popular locations.
“When people talk about ‘black films,’ the idea that quality is a factor (for the audience) is usually not considered,” Hudlin says, noting that many believed Django Unchained, the 2012 slavery western starring Jamie Foxx, wouldn’t travel. The Quentin Tarantino-directed picture brought in $425.4 million worldwide, with $262.6 million at the international box office.
“It’s not giving the same allowances to audiences (of films with black casts) that we do for other films,” Hudlin says.
The next black film that Deckter and Voltage Pictures is shopping to international buyers is All Eyez on Me, the Tupac Shakur biopic set for a U.S. release on June 16. Voltage made the deal to handle foreign distribution of the film in October, a comfortable gamble only because a similar film became a blockbuster years earlier.
“Two years ago, I don’t think I would’ve taken the film on. But then a movie called Straight Outta Compton came out and did gangbuster business worldwide,” he says. “That was a proof of concept, if you will, that a black movie that’s a biopic about music can work internationally.”
Hudlin admits that after more than 20 years of pitching movies with multi-ethnic and black casts to studios, he no longer has to preface it by saying “films with black casts aren’t just for black audiences.” But there still is hesitancy to green-light such films.
“The next frontier is finally blowing up this myth,” he says. “A lot of movies don’t travel, unless they do.”