Lessons from the overseas success of films with non-white cast

NEW YORK • For years, minority film-makers in the United States have pushed Hollywood studios and distributors to get over a reluctance to promote their films worldwide. They are hoping that 2018 is the tipping point they have been waiting for.

This year, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians and BlacKkKlansman all raked in money overseas, an unusual winning streak that challenged beliefs about the global appeal of actors of colour.

International distribution is hardly a glamorous aspect of movie-making. But with the global box office more important than ever to a studio's bottom line, the prognosis for how a film might fare abroad has far-reaching implications for the size of its budget or whether it even gets made.

Publicly available data suggests that beyond some exceptions - the Fast And Furious franchise and films starring Denzel Washington or Will Smith - movies with minority stars generally have not received the same international push as white-led ones.

Comparisons are imperfect, but in 2014, for example, the Kevin Hart-led remake of the romantic comedy About Last Night made US$2 million more at the domestic box office than the romcom Blended with Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler, despite opening in 1,300 fewer theatres, according to Box Office Mojo, which tracks ticket sales.

But About Last Night was released in only a fifth as many countries as Blended. Blended did well internationally, either proving studios' instincts right or, as critics suggest, showing what happens when studios put more effort behind white-led films.

Boots Riley, director of Sorry To Bother You (2018), starring Lakeith Stanfield, brought attention to the process when he complained on Twitter that "distributors r claiming 'Black movies' dont do well internationally and r treating it as such".

While Sorry To Bother You went on to secure international distribution from Focus Features, industry insiders said that there was truth to the director's charge.

Some film industry veterans familiar with studios' thinking say the issue is about perceived risk.

If a film is deemed relatable only to a smaller domestic audience, executives have been loath to risk profits on what they see as an expensive gamble abroad.

"The unknown mystery studio execs are always demonised, but they are investing millions of dollars and face incredibly high risk and they have one weekend to get it right, and often they can't," said Mr Hamish Moseley, head of distribution for Altitude Film Entertainment, a British distribution and production company.

"And they are beholden to information they have, which is what other films have done."

This year seemed to prove old industry assumptions wrong. By throwing muscle behind non-white film-makers who drew deeply from culturally specific experiences, studios hit pay dirt.

Black Panther drew nearly half of its US$1.3-billion (S$1.8-billion) revenues from overseas and Crazy Rich Asians made a quarter of its US$237-million earnings abroad. Foreign ticket sales account for nearly half of the US$88 million BlacKkKlansman has made worldwide so far.

Their success followed strong showings last year by two films with non-white leads, Get Out and Hidden Figures.

Some industry veterans say that while studios' international distribution branches know how to market big franchise films, they are not always as well suited for the kind of marketing films with non-white casts might require.

Ms Terra Potts, head of multicultural marketing at Warner Bros, said the success of the meticulous campaigns she crafted for Crazy Rich Asians and the 2015 film Creed were the result of having unwavering champions for each film in the studio from the get-go, which is often an anomaly for films with black or Asian leads.

Asian tastemakers were shown cuts of Crazy Rich Asians throughout production, which helped lock in major community support, and among the first to see Creed were attendees at one of Sean "Diddy" Combs' music conferences in Miami Beach. The films' domestic success helped foment international interest.

"You really need people internally who believe in it, who are not going to take no for an answer," Ms Potts said. "This kind of success doesn't just happen."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2018, with the headline 'Lessons from the overseas success of films with non-white cast'. Print Edition | Subscribe