Back from hiatus. This is the first post in a series exploring the distribution challenges faced by films starring actors of colour. Today’s post aims to provide an overview of the current situation and attitudes within traditional distribution.  I’ve wanted to address race and distribution since I started writing this blog. Now seemed like the time. Further articles are on how diverse studios and indie films perform can be found at Diversity in Film Distribution: Breaking Down The Box Office and Do Diverse Indie Films Sell?

There are certain truths held up as self evident in film distribution. Today I’m tackling an uglier one. There’s a belief in the industry that films starring people of colour don’t sell. They make less money.

Or in the words of many distributors at film markets.

 “Put a black face on a movie poster and the film won’t sell.”

What’s going on here?

Distribution is the hard business end of the industry. There’s one colour distributors care about and that’s green. It’s all about the money.

In today’s challenging market, with the massive decline in home entertainment, rise of piracy, and plethora of other options available to consumers, distributors want films that make money. They want films which are easy to sell and market and there’s a perception that films with actors of colour aren’t commercial.

Damian Jones, the producer of Belle touched on this talking about his experience approaching sales agents at the Diversity panel at Creative Week in London in June in 2014.

“Some sales companies said that the film’s [Belle] theme, the mixed race lead, and the black writer and director meant the film wouldn’t sell in Japan, Germany and other territories and that it wouldn’t play at certain festivals.”

Belle went on to take $11 million at the US box office and was picked up by Fox for distribution in Germany and Japan with theatrical and home entertainment releases respectively. But these assumptions affect all films with actors of colour.

This thinking isn’t limited to the independent world. It happens in the studio system as shown in the following frank emails from the Sony hack, with execs discussing the performance of Denzel Washington’s action movie The Equalizer. Selected highlights:

“Are you saying The Equalizer shouldn’t have been made or that African American actors should be excluded?”

“I believe the international motion picture audience is racist — in general, films with an African American lead don’t play well overseas.”

Click to expand and read the full text. The execs go on to discuss how Denzel Washington isn’t bankable enough internationally due to audience racism and there might not be enough of a commercial upside for Sony to continue making films like this.

Sony Emails - Black Actors Make Less Money

Email via Val Broeksmit – @bikinirobotarmy on Twitter.

Even in this context, The Equaliser racked up a respectable $192 million worldwide, with $90 million coming from foreign. The Equaliser 2 is already in the works, set for release in September 2017.

Here’s how the industry logic breaks down. Film is an international business. For films to be financially successful, they need to be able to perform worldwide. 30 years ago, a US distribution deal would account for approximately 70% revenue, with foreign making up the remaining 30%. Now that trend is reversing.

The Motion Pictures Association of America reported international box office accounted for 72% of total global box office in 2014. The US remains the largest market for film, but here are the top twenty countries by size of film market after the US:

$4.8 billion
$2.0 billion
$1.8 billion
$1.7 billion
$1.7 billion
South Korea
$1.6 billion
$1.3 billion
$1.2 billion
$1.0 billion
$0.9 billion
$0.8 billion
$0.8 billion
$0.7 billion
$0.3 billion
$0.3 billion
$0.3 billion
$0.3 billion
$0.2 billion
$0.2 billion
$0.2 billion

To make money, films need to play in these territories and the Sony exec isn’t wrong. Prejudice comes into play. Think of the population make-up of these countries. The majority are not ethnically diverse and the mass market mainstream audiences find it harder to connect with films starring actors of colour.

This isn’t just an issue for black actors. It happens with all actors of colour and has a huge impact on film distribution, which films get financed, which films are represented by sales agents and picked up for distribution.

There’s a sociological term that offers an explanation for audience behaviour. It’s called a racial empathy gap. Andre Seewood highlighted this phenomena in his excellent article “Why White People Don’t Like Black Movies” in Indiewire’s Shadow and Act.

“A vast majority of White people don’t like Black movies because they lack the empathy necessary to identify with Black characters which in turn affects their ability to “suspend disbelief” and surrender to the narrative of a Black film. 

What has been called the Racial Empathy Gap in various sociological studies conducted by researchers at the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Toronto Scarborough have revealed that,” The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one’s own race.”(1)  

This study found that the degree of mental activity when White participants watched non-White men performing a task was significantly lower than when they watched people of their own race performing the same task.

“In other words people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people.” (2)”

What does this mean? The mass mainstream audience have trouble connecting to actors of colour. They don’t go to see the movie. The film makes a loss. Distributors, sales agents and producers lose out, leading to bias about race and distribution.

This isn’t just a problem in foreign markets. The UK is one of the most diverse countries in the world, but there’s been much discussion in trades in recent weeks why films like Dear White People and Beyond The Lights went straight to VOD and didn’t merit a theatrical release.

In the indie world, this impacts the types of films sales agents pick up. Sales agents make money on commission. They know that some territories are predisposed to pass on films featuring people of colour. Fewer territories to exploit means less commission.

Why spend the same time and money marketing and promoting a film that you can only sell for to a limited number of territories and is going to give you a lower return?

Here’s an older anecdotal example of how this plays out on the distributor side from Mark Boot, director of Consolidated Media Holdings. He’s a buyer’s rep with 20 years experience in the industry, who also acts as an expert witness in film distribution arbitration cases.

In the early 90s, a studio was preselling action movie Passenger 57. One of the leads attached dropped out and was replaced by Wesley Snipes, a star of a similar stature to the original actor. The film had sold to South Korea. On hearing Snipes was now in the movie, they dropped their prebuy offer from $500K down to $40K*, less than 10% of their original offer because they felt South Korean audiences would not go see the film now Snipes had replaced the white original actor.

*Approximate numbers.

Distributors are risk averse. They tend to assess films based on the past success or failure of similar movies. If films with actors of colour have under performed, there’s an understandable reluctance to take a chance on a theatrical release with all the associated costs, or even for digital releases.

It’s not driven by malice. Distributors don’t have the time or money to experiment with how to find the audience and market these films successfully. They will likely not do so until someone in the independent sector demonstrates a viable, commercial and lucrative way of selling these movies.

This makes financing films with actors of colour incredibly difficult. Saving Mr Banks producer Alison Owen discussed her experience with this when speaking at an Act For Change event last year. As Screen Daily reports:

Owen… said she had seen on screen diversity “get better and then get worse” in recent years, highlighting attitudes in other nations as a barrier.

“When I started in the industry, funding was very much domestic from the UK,” she explained.

“But what’s really difficult is if you’re trying to raise money for something and you’re raising for an international market. Try selling something to Italy with black people starring in it, try selling something to Asia with women in it. It’s really hard.”

 Owen added that it was “dispiriting” as she had “fought so hard” for women and ethnic minorities “only to see that bit eaten away as international sales form so much of the funding these days”. 

It becomes the justification for white washing, where white actors play characters of colour, from Emma Stone as a Pacific Islander in Aloha, Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Peter Pan, to Ridley Scott’s all white cast in Exodus. Scott was unrepentant when challenged about his casting choices.

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

But the question is actually a lot more complicated than that.

The ethnically diverse Fast and Furious 7 broke records hitting over $1 billion in foreign box office. 12 Years A Slave racked up $187 million, with 70% coming from international. Selma took $67 million worldwide, with 22% coming from overseas.  Slumdog Millionaire was a global smash, bringing in $377 million worldwide. Bend It Like Beckham scored $76 million.

Dwayne Johnson was the top grossing actor of 2013. Will Smith’s movies have grossed over $6.4 billion worldwide. He’s the only actor to have 10 consecutive films gross more than $150 million internationally.

Success for a film, whether starring actors of colour or not, is rooted in quality, cast, genre and marketing muscle. Great films can transcend and connect.

Action movies and broad comedies tend to perform better commercially than drama. Stars always help with marketability. Films based on strong existing IP with audience pre-awareness have more drawing power.

Audiences are capable of raising above prejudice, real or perceived, and will buy tickets for outstanding movies, whether that’s a studio franchise movie backed by millions in marketing or smaller indies which are undeniable in quality. There are enough counter examples to challenge the narrative and there’s positive progress being made.

At Cannes this year, there were some high profile projects on the Croisette including Mister Smith’s Race, a biopic about American athlete Jesse Owens, Chi-Raq – Spike Lee’s take on Greek comedy Lysistrata, Jeff Nichols’ Loving about an interracial couple in the 1950s and Fifty Shades of Black, Marlon Wayans’ 50 Shades of Grey parody.

There’s also the latest Rocky sequel Creed with Michael B Jordan and Marvel’s Black Panther which will all be interesting test cases and hopefully move the industry forward.

As a filmmaker, you need to understand how your film is going to fit in this landscape and how you can find and connect to your audience. Increasing diversity on TV is helping change the conversation.  There are alternative options for distribution and people pioneering new ways of getting their films out there.

More on this in the next article in this series to be published next Monday.

Photo Credit: Dear White People

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

Further Reading

Does Britain have a problem with race when it come to film distribution? by Karen Atwood in The Independent

In “Defense” of the Brad Pitt “12 Years A Slave” posters – A real world example of the challenges of selling a film with black actors to Italy leading to controversial marketing choices.

I’m all for lively debate, but let’s keep this civil. Comments will be moderated. I’m interested in discussing systemic bias. Attacks on individuals will not be tolerated. This is my house, so play nice.

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