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. theaters. Certainly, it’s not the kind of movie that was expected to make money overseas. After all, says a longstanding Hollywood myth, black films don’t travel.
Yet as of Tuesday, “Moonlight” has made $28.6 million at the international box office — more than its $27.5 million domestic take — for a worldwide total of $56.1 million. With the film still in theaters, even more is expected.
“This black film is definitely selling overseas,” Jenkins said to The Times 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, Will Smith, Kevin Hart, Denzel Washington and Don Cheedle are other box office champs for whom the “transcended race” label has been applied.)
For 1995’s “Bad Boys” and its 2003 sequel — which together pulled in a combined $210.3 million internationally and $414.7 million worldwide — it was the fact 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 music of rap group N.W.A.
Even as three-time Oscar nominee “Hidden Figures,” with its predominantly black cast, has so far made $48.8 million internationally — helping to push its $166 million domestic sales to nearly $215 million worldwide and counting — the myth persists.
When asked about the myth, Octavia Spencer, Oscar-nominated for her “Hidden Figures” role, responded simply: “I have two words for you: Will Smith.”
“He was told the same thing [at the beginning of his career] — that he wasn’t going to be taken to promote his film,” she said at the annual pre-Oscars Sistahs Soiree honoring women of color in the industry. “Had he not paid for himself to fly all over the world that very first time, he would not be an international box office star. So they have to start investing and taking black actresses and actors across the world just like they do with unknown white actors. They need to do the same thing for black actors. If you don’t know ’em, why would you go support the film?”
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 — making its auteur the first black director with a $100 million debut — the film is just beginning to be released internationally, an effort by the studio to first test the film among its intended American audience and then strategically roll it out in other countries. Such an approach capitalizes on the film’s current hold in American pop culture while forecasting potential territories it might play well in.
For Peele, the myth doesn’t negatively affect “Get Out’s” worldwide appeal.
“All I know is from the interviews I’ve done with people overseas who’ve seen it, they get it and really dig it just as much as the people who are interviewing me here,” he says. “Otherwise I’ll have to wait and see… Hopefully people come and see it.”
‘Good movies perform’
“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.”
He struggles, he says, “with categorizing any film using the makeup of its cast or point of view of its storytelling,” and calls Hollywood banter about the inherent lack of profitability for a movie that features a diverse cast “myopic.”
Jonathan Deckter, president and chief operating officer of Voltage Pictures, with a specialty in international and domestic sales, agrees, saying the myth is “ignorant.”
“That’s an overgeneralization to say that black films don’t travel,” Deckter says. “Good movies perform. Movies that have something special, unique, something that drives an audience to get off of their sofa and into a cinema perform.”
Director and producer Reginald Hudlin says, “The confusion starts with the definition of ‘black film,’ as if it was a genre. 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.
“The definition,” adds Hudlin, who is working on the upcoming “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “is designed to reach a conclusion, which is that black films don’t sell.”
How does it work?
For an American independent film to make it into an international theater, 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 fully completed. While some films get purchased during the pre-sale process, international buyers can also choose to wait until they see a finished film, either at film festivals, at film markets, such as Santa Monica’s American Film Market, or those held alongside the Berlin and Cannes film festivals. A film’s commercial potential, which takes into account the U.S. release date, script, director, genre, cast, critical acclaim (if it’s been shown) and culture of a film, dictates the enthusiasm of international distributors.
Disproving the ‘black films don’t travel’ Hollywood myth – Los Angeles Times