Following my article, Is Film Distribution Institutionally Racist?, I’m taking a look at the box office trends and models for films with actors of colour. Diversity’s become a hot topic for the industry. Let’s break down how it works.

Here’s the challenge for every filmmaker at every level. For your film to be seen as a success, it needs to make money. Sure, there are other markers of success like critical acclaim, but the movie industry is a business. To get ahead, your films need to make bank. How do you make your film for the right price to perform in the current market?

All films aren’t created equal.

When you look at the market, it’s helpful to break it down into categories: studio, super indie and indie. Each comes with different business models, resources and challenges.

If you’re making a micro-budget indie movie, you can’t compare it to a studio blockbuster. You need to know how your film fits in the landscape and the wider trends in the industry.


In the past 10 years, we’ve seen the major studios slates shift to tentpole movies. It’s a high risk high reward strategy, targeted at the major growth in international box office.

As I explained in Is Film Distribution Institutionally Racist?, international box office now makes up 70% of global box office. For films to succeed, they have play in these territories. Budgets have ballooned to $200M and above. Marketing costs have soared to match, with P&A in the range of $200M for a blockbuster.

Top of the pack for foreign is China, which is on track to overtake the US as the largest contributor to world box office by 2017, seeing growth of 48.7% in 2015.

Which is why you see Chinese stars like Bingbing Li cropping up in Transformers: Age of Extinction and Bingbing Fan in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The studios are tapping into the Chinese market and ensuring their slots in the limited quota of Hollywood movies.

What does the rise of the international box office mean for diversity?

At the tentpole level, there are different conversations happening.  Furious 7 raced to $1.5 billion in worldwide box office, just one film in Universal’s diverse slate that saw them dominate in tickets sales in 2015. There’s progress like the all female reboot of Ghostbusters and Michael B Jordan’s casting as Johnny Storm in  Fantastic Four.

Then there’s the old guard holding onto the rationale actors of colour don’t play in foreign markets.

There’s a two word answer to that now.

Star Wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a diversity triumph. As of the 4th January, it racked up $742.2 million in the US and over $770 million in foreign, bringing worldwide to $1.51 billion.

The new leads? A woman, a Latino actor and a black guy from Peckham.

Will Star Wars’ success translate into more diversity in other films? This is where we run smack into conscious and unconscious biases from decision makers, combined with genuine fears about making a flop.

There’s a too big to fail mentality towards tent pole movies. With production plus marketing adding up to $500 million for a single movie, a string of flops will break a studio.

This is how the rationale will go. Star Wars is Star Wars. It’s the myth cycle of our time. It holds an unparalleled place in cultural consciousness. The Star Wars brand can carry diverse casting. It was an ensemble, which allows more space for diversity.

But an actor of colour lead a tentpole? Who’s bankable? Who can carry foreign? Just read the Sony emails I cited in Is Film Distribution Institutionally Racist?

Idris Elba would make an amazing James Bond. But with $500 million at stake, my gut is they’ll go for a white guy. Idris in a smaller movie with a white co-lead? Sure. There are talks he could be Roland in the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower potentially opposite Matthew McConaughy.

Coming from the distribution and finance side of the industry, I’m more sympathetic to these concerns than most. Diversity isn’t a hill many people would choose to die on.

Even those fighting for change have to balance that with wanting to work and get hired. Director Lexi Alexander wrote about her experience in her excellent Of Fear and Fake Diversity.  There needs to be systemic change in the industry.

Marvel’s Black Panther might change the conversation. It’s a huge test case. Does Marvel have the marketing muscle to make it a hit, even in problematic territories?

I don’t know. I hope so. I’d be very interested to find out how the production budget compares to Ant Man. Do Marvel have the confidence to launch it on the same level as a white male superhero?

For now, where does that take us for diversity at the studios?

To mid level and lower budget movies. The big budget blockbuster isn’t the only model. Tent poles all the time are frankly unsustainable. Studios need to spread their risk. Foreign isn’t everything. Movies can be built around and be successful based on US box office. If they break through to foreign, even better.

Let’s look at some examples.

*Note, the examples skew heavily to black actors. Sadly, there are far fewer examples of Hispanic, Asian and Middle Eastern actors, which is a separate conversation in itself.

The Help – 2011


Dreamworks/Buena Vista distributed

Budget: $25 million
US: $169,708,112 (78.3%)
Foreign: $46,931,000 (21.7%)
Worldwide: $216,639,112

Lee Daniel’s The Butler – 2013


Budget: $30 million
US: $116,632,095 (66.0%)
Foreign: $59,966,813 (34.0%)
Worldwide: $176,598,908

*More of a super indie production. Released by The Weinstein Company in the US.

Straight Outta Compton – 2015


Legendary co-pro/Universal distributed

Budget: $28 million
US: $161,197,785 (80.4%)
Foreign: $39,227,397 (19.6%)
Worldwide: $200,425,182

Creed – 2015


MGM/New Line/Warner Brothers distributed

Budget: $35 million
US: $103,122,271 (89.3%)
Foreign: $12,400,000 (10.7%) with more territories to open
Worldwide: $115,522,271

What’s the pattern here? Films based on existing IP and/or with strong audience pre-awareness and name talent that will play strongly domestically.

Think Like A Man – 2012


Screen Gems

Budget: $12 million
US: $91,547,205 (95.3%)
Foreign: $4,523,302 (4.7%)
Worldwide: $96,070,507

The Best Man Holiday – 2013



Budget: $17 million
US: $70,525,195 (96.8%)
Foreign: $2,310,515 (3.2%)
Worldwide: $72,835,710

Think Like A Man Too – 2014


Screen Gems

Budget: $24 million
US: $65,182,182 (92.9%)
Foreign: $4,999,246 (7.1%)
Worldwide: $70,181,428

No Good Deed – 2014


Screen Gems produced/distributed

Budget: $13 million
US: $52,543,632 (96.7%)
Foreign: $1,779,578 (3.3%)
Worldwide: $54,323,210

Ride Along – 2014


Universal produced/distributed

Budget: $25 million
US: $134, 938,200 (87.4%)
Foreign: $19,530,702 (12.6%)
Worldwide: $154,468,902

The Boy Next Door – 2015


Universal produced/distributed

Budget: $4 million
US: $35,423,380 (67.6%)
Foreign: $17,001,239 (32.4%)

Worldwide: $52,424,619

Figures from Box Office Mojo

There are different models here. The standard studio comedy model, with budgets rising for sequels and bankable stars. No Good Deed and The Boy Next Door are female driven thrillers, with The Boy Next Door following the Blumhouse model, made for a low budget with a major star taking a higher backend percentage. It’s a smart blueprint if you can get the cast.

These are good numbers, even accounting for marketing. They don’t take into account ancillary revenues from DVD, TV and digital. For all the focus on foreign numbers, the US has a multifaceted revenue stream for film – streaming, pay TV, digital, DVD. Box office isn’t the be all and end all. Many of these film simply weren’t released internationally but are still financially viable without these markets.

Non-white audiences in the US are a massively underserved audience with huge buying power. The MPAA breaks down audience demographics in their annual report. In 2014, Hispanic audiences continued to be the most frequent moviegoers in the US per capita.

The idea there isn’t an audience is nonsense. Like him or loathe him, Tyler Perry’s movies help catapult Lionsgate into a mini major and Perry into a multi millionaire.

There are audiences hungry for representations of themselves. If the studios are going to survive, they’d be wise to take advantage of them.

More to come on super indies and indie movies in my next article.

Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments.

Photo Credit: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Further Reading

My next diversity article focuses on independent films. Do diverse indie films sell?

Diverse Movies Are A Huge Business. Why doesn’t Hollywood make more?

For Universal, Diversity is Key to Box Office Success

What to do when you’re not the hero anymore?

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