How The Hollywood Equation Is Endangering Black Stories

11 comments
March 6, 2012 ‐ By

by Steven Barboza

Great black stories almost never get shown at America’s megaplexes. The reason? They are an endangered species.

In a perfect world, major studios would green-light a dozen films per year with mostly black casts, and audiences of all persuasions would pay to see them. But Hollywood moguls seem stuck on the color of actors’ skin. Either major studios don’t think white audiences would pay to see universal human dramas played out by black actors, or studios are bewildered by black films. Many fail at the box office for a host of reasons, including lack of audience development and badly hatched advertising and publicity campaigns.

“Ultimately, to reach an African American audience, there needs to be a cross-section of tactics,” said Ava DuVernay, filmmaker and publicist. DuVernay, who helped to market such Hollywood releases as “Dreamgirls” and “Invictus,” has formed an alliance that aims to bring more black films to commercial theaters. The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (or AFFRM) uses social networking and grass-roots tactics to reach its marketing goals.

The alliance hopes to overcome a host of mistakes being made by otherwise savvy producers and film makers. Many black films fall victim to their creators’ good intentions but inept marketing practices. “I think that a lot of people overshoot in terms of the number of screens that they put a film on,” said DuVernay, “and I think that a lot of people undershoot in terms of the type of marketing that they apply toward certain types of films. But in cases where there’s been a happy marriage of distribution and marketing, you’ve seen modest and successfully distributed films that give nice returns to investors.”

The film “Just Wright,” starring Queen Latifah and Common, was “on too many screens,” DuVernay said. “And it was a campaign that didn’t integrate any kind of grassroots effort or real local outreach. They had a very national campaign, and they were relying on their stars. If they would have had some boots on the ground, it might have made some difference.” The film only grossed $21.5 million.

Other black films succeed if producers employ the right marketing mix. “You look at something very successful like ‘Jumping the Broom’ — they had a full-fledged publicity campaign, a very aggressive advertising campaign and local support on the ground — and you get a hit,” DuVernay said. “Same thing with ‘The Help.’ With the right marketing, the right push, the right kind of perfect storm of elements, you can actually have a successful release.”

She herself has left nothing to chance. She has written and directed a film titled “I Will Follow,” starring Salli Richardson-Whitfield, who plays a woman sorting through memories of a dead aunt. The film was the first to be marketed by the AFFRM. “We couldn’t afford big advertising so we upped our ground game,” DuVernay said. “We did more grassroots organizing. We did heavy, heavy publicity. We were in a market for six months, when you’d [customarily] be in a market for 3 or 4 months before opening.”

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  • Cigars1971

    When Red Tails came to the Seattle area, I noticed a lot of white people at the cinema.  So I think black movies are great for everyone not just for blacks.  Hollywood needs to really stop being racist against us and produce more black films.  

  • JN31

    What kills me about Hollywood is that they feel there’s a “strategy” for targeting black audiences. As if we have to be tricked into seeing a movie. Black people like everyone else like science fiction, drama, comedy, thrillers, etc. My favorite movies range from Forrest Gump, Singin’ in the Rain and Menace II Society. If a movie is good, it’s good.

    On the flip side, I probably would be more inclined to watch a movie with an all or majority of a black cast. If the script is on point and it’s an endearing tale that’s good enough for me. Besides, we all know the powers that be aren’t black, so the heads of the studios are the one’s getting paid no matter what. It’s great to see people take the initiative as listed in this post to go about and get things done on our own. 

  • IllyPhilly

    Money talks. sadly, everyone has a price. 

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/V6O2EBOSDDIC3EESW3JS22OYWA Vic

    Even Tyler Perry’s movies are funded and marketed by white people. It’s their industry in this area of the world , and it isn’t very flattering to us to continually beg for inclusion from people that obviously don’t want us there. 

    • http://www.charcoal-ink.com Kagem

      Which is why black filmmakers need to fund the films themselves or get a loan. 

    • Pfeiffer87

       Maybe the people in the offices don’t want black films to be made but I do think the average joe on the street does want to watch interesting, cross-cultural films. I have white friends and family who happily went to see Dreamgirls, Ray, Night Catches Us and many more ‘black’ films. I think its the ignorance of the execs etc who make assumptions about what people want to see and are interested in.

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/V6O2EBOSDDIC3EESW3JS22OYWA Vic

        I do not believe the execs are ignorant of anything. Black people have always been everyone’s entertainment since the beginning of cinema. Even the first “official” film ever made was about black people ( even though it was in blackface and about white supremacy). 

        My main point was that we’re currently living in a system , a society of white supremacy. So I see black people complaining about not being included or well received in a white owned , operated , and dominated platform as not exactly the best look for all of us. 

      • http://www.charcoal-ink.com Kagem

        I remember seeing Dreamgirls in the cinema in Paris and there was a mixed cultural crowd for that joint, so I definitely see where you are going with that.

        What I think some black filmmakers need to do is stop thinking that they are ”owed” something by the white Hollywood establishment. I don’t know how Kasi, or that bird who did ‘Eve’s Bayou’ got that film made but it was absolutely brilliant and electric. More black films like that need to be made with sufficient financial empowerment.

        Once black filmmakers stop looking at Oscars as their number one goal, the money will follow. Emerging markets like Nigeria, Brazil and South Africa would be great places for filmmakers to promote black films made by African-Americans.

        Once we stop being so Oscar struck, maybe more films can come out that speak to us and not stereotypes. 

        • FH

          AMEN!!!! YOU ARE SOOOO RIGHT I DIDNT EVEN THINK ABOUT BLACK FILMMAKERS MARKETING TO OTHER COUNTRIES….YOU HIT IT RIGHT ON THE NAIL…SOO TRUE WE ARE OSCAR STRUCK…THANK YOU FOR OPENING MY EYES…ITS SO SAD OUR PPL IS SO DIVIDED WE ALL HAVE SO MANY GREAT IDEAS….INSTEAD OF TYLER PERRY AND SPIKE LEE ARGUING THEY SHOULDVE WORKED TOGETHER OR AT LEAST MET IN THE MIDDLE TO HELP EACH OTHER OUT…..

          • Cigars1971

            Tyler Perry and Spike Lee is a prime example of how black people can’t stick together.  

          • http://www.charcoal-ink.com Kagem

            Thanks for your kind words – I seriously think African-American film makers need to look at the diaspora to get people in cinemas. Emerging markets are where it is at.