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A Few Things To Consider As You React To The Italian '12 Years A Slave' Release Posters...

Features
by Tambay A. Obenson
December 23, 2013 5:54 PM
14 Comments
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In reading world wide web reactions to the Italian release posters for 12 Years A Slave, I immediately remembered this similar occurrence over the summer - except, it didn't happen in Italy, but right here in the good old US of A.

In reading comments on the Italian 12 Years A Slave posters, across the web, I see that many are quick to blast racism and ignorance in Italy, and/or lament the marketing tactics used by the film's Italian distributor, and I thought I'd throw some more ingredients into the frying pan, for you to consider. 

First, it may not be widely-known that the international seller and distributor for the film is an American company. Summit Entertainment (via an arrangement with Entertainment One, a Canadian company), is handling the film's international sales and distribution. California-based Summit Entertainment is owned by Lionsgate - as in the same company that releases all of Tyler Perry's movies, and is also home to Codeblack Films, who released titles like Free Angela And All Political Prisoners, The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister & Pete and others.

I mention all of that first, so that it's clear to everyone who exactly is responsible for the film's release in Italy, and ultimately, its marketing materials. 

And secondly, the similar occurrence I mentioned at the start of this post, which happened right here in our own backyard was, as you can see above and below, marketing materials for American distributor Anchor Bay Entertainment's USA release of the award-winning Australian film The Sapphires.

I think the images speak for themselves: above, the Australian version of the cover is on the right; and the USA version of the cover is on the left (it's in reverse below). You can see why Anchor Bay was criticized for the move - one that was also labeled racist; The difference being, the poster on the left was made for us - American audiences - likely for the very same reasons that the Italian posters for 12 Years A Slave look like they do. In both cases, the motivation (despite the questionable tactics, and our reactions to them) is to sell a product (in this case, films) to a targeted audience.

I suppose the question is, where to draw the proverbial line.

Anchor Bay Entertainment later released a statement saying that it regretted "any unintentional upset" caused by the image, adding that new cover art was "being considered for future replenishment orders.

And by the way, you should know that Anchor Bay Entertainment is co-owned by The Weinstein Company - the same company that released films like Fruitvale Station and The Butler, and more, this year.

I think it's important to know what the relationships between these various film companies are - as in, who's really running each show, at the top of the pyramid. So while it may seem obvious to scream Italian racism (not that it doesn't exist) for something like the 12 Years A Slave images, consider where the responsibility ultimately, truly lies. Often, it can be tracked right back here, within the offices of film studios in our backyard, in these United States - the same companies, by the way, that release films every year, that you pay to see. 

The Sapphires is inspired by the real-life story of a 1960s soul singing quartet comprised of 4 Aborigine women (all sisters), branded as Australia’s answer to The Supremes.

It was a box off smash in Australia - the best opening for an Australian movie in almost two years at the time - and was rewarded by the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards.

So, ultimately, I'm not at all shocked by any of this. It happens even more than is reported. Typically, unless it's a high-profile work, you likely won't see much media coverage. 

And it goes even beyond film. I recall learning about a practice within the book publishing world that would essentially "white-wash" covers. Novels with stories about black people are sometimes printed with white, or otherwise ambiguous or ”non-race specific” faces on their covers, or no faces at all, instead favoring words over images, because, as we often hear in the film industry about “black films,” books with faces of black people on them don’t sell as well. Or they'll be immediately tagged "black literature," chasing a significant portion of readers away.

In 2009, I believe it was, on the old S&A site, we wrote about a novel titled Liar by Justine Larbalestier, which tells a story about a black teenage girl, and which was published that year with a cover featuring the face of a girl who looks nothing like the character in the novel, as she’s described. Micah, the teenage girl in the novel, is “black with nappy hair, which she wears natural and short.” 

The image used on the cover initially featured a white girl with long blondish/brownish hair.

Some wondered if the publishers were maybe trying to be clever with the cover, since it is a novel about a compulsive liar; essentially, she lies so much that she’s even lying about who she really is. Certainly possible, but, many believed there was something more deliberate at work – the proverbial “white-wash.”

Larbalestier was quick to clue us in to the fact that hers wasn’t (isn't) an isolated incident, explaining that this is an industry practice that’s quite prevalent. One of the more poignant paragraphs in an article she penned at the time, stated:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

And maybe even more importantly, with black girls already routinely being bombarded with images of some Eurocentric beauty standard, even if they did pick up the book to read it, how are they to reconcile the image on the cover with the content within the book’s pages?

She continued…

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago.

Now replace the words "book" and "books" in both above statements from the author, with the words "film" and "films" where required.

Towards the end of her post, she asked, “perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

And to that, I ask the same thing, “perhaps the whole “black films don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?”

Before I go, here's another previous example that I can immediately recall: the international poster for the comedy Couples Retreat, a movie that centered around four couples who settle into a tropical-island resort for a vacation, and, naturally, hilarity and hijinx ensue.

The first poster created for the North American market, showed all 4 couples, including the lone black couple played by Faizon Love and Kali Hawk. Although, they weren't prominently positioned in the poster (distant rear), behind the other 3 couples, positioned in front of them.

However, in the poster created for the international market, they were nowhere to be found - photoshopped out of the image entirely, as you can see on the right. 

Naturally, that caused a bit of a stir as well.

As I said before, this kind of thing happens a lot folks (and not just in film), even if they aren't always reported. I'm certainly not suggesting that it's appropriate, but just keep that mind. And also make sure you know who exactly to target your frustrations and annoyances at. The companies ultimately responsible for these decisions (whether abroad or at home) could very well be the same USA-based film studios whose product you spend money on every weekend. So, in the case of 12 Years A Slave, if you're really upset, consider flooding Lionsgate with emails and phone calls, asking them to comment on the film's Italian release posters, rather than taking to Twitter or Facebook and blasting all of Italy for its racist ways, even though you may be considering taking a vacation there next summer.

Here are the 2 DVD covers for The Sapphires, side by side - again, the Australian version of the cover on the left; the USA release version of the cover on the right, with Chris O'Dowd prominently featured, with his name only at the top of it, as if it's a movie all about him, with some indecipherable, unknown women faded into the background.

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14 Comments

  • tish | January 9, 2014 10:42 PMReply

    My first encounter with "white washing" was when I first read Octavia Butler's "Lilith." The skinny white woman on the cover representing the book's very dark-skinned, Amazonian black woman is so over-the-top it's hilarious now. But back then (and "then" wasn't that long ago) it had to have been incredibly depressing for Ms. Butler. Not only is Lilith misrepresented on the cover, but the other person she is shown with is also a white woman. This, despite the fact that white women were rather significant insignificant characters in the entire trilogy. Only in a bizarro world does that even make sense.

  • CareyCarey | December 28, 2013 4:21 AMReply

    Okay, let me count the ways... 1-2-3-4-5, there it is, five comments below mine sits ACCIDENTAL VISITOR's comment December 24, 2013 11:29 AM . After reading his I didn't need to read any more. In fact, I wasn't even going to read this post nor the Italian 12 Years A Slave poster post (resisted 5 days) because I knew what I'd find. You know, racist this and racism that, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves for treating us like that. And I get tired of hearing that same ol' same ol' crying time over and over again. But plain and simple, as AV said, this is business as usual... and good business at that.

    Come on now, I don't care (and we all know) if the person's (moviegoer's) skin is white, regardless of his birth place, that person is more inclined to be attracted to images that look just like him or her. Hell, and we all know "black films" are a hard sell on any continent, but a proven way of getting them "in" and enjoyed by the masses is for one of the main characters to rule over the black protagonist(s) or be their savior. In walks Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender right off the pages of the book up to the posters. Makes good sense to me. Besides, what's the supporting argument that a black man should appear on the poster? I am serious, think about that, slavery was a tool of white savages. And in this case, had their not been the sick bastard Edwin Epps, there wouldn't have been a story.

    Hey, besides, y'all know the saying "you can't judge a book by it's cover" so what's all the brouhaha about anyway? Did you enjoy the movie or not... and would a "different" poster have made you feel differently?

  • Larry Brown | December 26, 2013 10:23 AMReply

    Seems to me like marketers are lazy and uncreative by relying on the same, antiquated "formula" they have for years by to get butts in seats. LAZY, LAZY, LAZY! And why set up your audience with false expectations? Bait and switch. Bad marketing, I say.

  • Anti-believer | December 25, 2013 12:38 AMReply

    Anyone who has been to Europe know that racism is very prevalent there. This explains why Brad Pitt is on the poster and not Chiwetel Ejiofor.

  • European | December 28, 2013 3:03 AM

    Really? I'm from the UK and there is an absolute zero policy on racism here. It's even a prison able offence here.

    But the racist, (or rather xenophobe here) is you for over generalizing the stereotype of a single country to an entire continent as your own stupidity or lack of education assumes "Europe" is one whole place.

    People like you make me sick.

  • Kurskij | December 24, 2013 2:17 PMReply

    @accidental visitor

    While I do agree with your "business as usual" comment, there was only one poster for "Flight" in Russia that featured Reilly. Most of them, including enormous adds on buildings featured only Denzel.

    Because he sells in Russia, Kelly - does not.

  • Accidental Visitor | December 24, 2013 11:29 AMReply

    This is simply business as usual. One doesn't even have to use the recent example of The Sapphires. One can instead use an example of another film of Ejiofor from a decade ago: Dirty Pretty Things. Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou are co-leads in every way. But only Tatou's image was placed on the poster and DVD cover. And it just wasn't the international poster for places like Japan and Germany this was the case for the American and UK posters, places you would think would be more open to have the face of a black person who isn't/wasn't an international star. The trailer for DPT goes as far to make Ejiofor look as if he was a merely a bit player when in fact he drove the narrative.

    And it is not only about Ejiofor not being an established movie star by the way. In some eastern European countries as well in Russia the posters for "Flight" gave Kelly Reilly as big a profile as it did Denzel Washington. Now I loved Reilly's work in the film but clearly she was a supporting character in the film. She disappeara from the story 2/3 ways into the movie. Plus she was't tn or now a well known film star. But lo and behold she got treated like one for the posters in those countries. Why? Could it be that a star like Denzel wouldn't be enough to sell the film to the mainstream audiences of those countries because of his race and therefore putting a white face on the poster with him would make the movie more appealing to the public?

    You see it is not always about star power. If Ejiofor was white and relatively unknown I'm guessing his profile on an Italian poster would be more pronounced for a movie he stars in. If his co-stars in such a film were Pitt and Fassbender they would be profiled to on the poster but probably not at the expense of Ejiofor if he too was white.

    I understand the business point of view for why this is done, but it is a sad commentary that international audiences are widely considered to be disinterested in movies starring black people (with the exception of huge stars like Will Smith) regardless of the quality of those movies. Hopefully this will improve in time.

  • Somethings to consider | December 23, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    A good article of the assumptions of out of touch corporate film companies have of the public. In Australia, the director of a film titled 'Skin' complained that a distributer commented that films about black people don't sell in Australia. Yet the Sapphires, Rabbit proof fence, Samson and Dahlila, Ten canoes, The Tracker, The chant of Jimmy Blacksmith amongst others, all have done well. Some haven't, but that generally comes from the quality of the film not the race of actors in it. The way the industry judges why a film doesn't do well is pretty stupid and simplistic. Films with black actors don't do as well... What are their budgets? Are the actors well known? Who directed it? What was the marketing budget? Those thing seem to get ignored. But something to consider is generally a lot of lazy marketing will take the most famous actor now know as 'a brand', then predominately feature them on the poster and thinking their job is done. We need to remember films are not products. Yes they are sold, but they are first stories. It's commodified art. The film business is business art, not the art of business.

  • Phred G | December 24, 2013 9:51 PM

    RABBIT-PROOF FENCE!!!! Such a great film with excellent dvd extras also. I loaned mine to my Film Appreciation prof and forgot about it til it was waaaay too late. He's retired to God-knows-where. I'll buy another dvd. Whydja hafta REMIND me? sigh

  • stp | December 23, 2013 9:53 PMReply

    Slow day at S & A....

  • Miles Maker | December 23, 2013 8:39 PMReply

    Not sure where you're getting your information, but Italian distributor BIM is releasing 12 YEARS A SLAVE in Italy and conceptualized these posters in collaboration with marketing company Fanatical About Cinema.

  • nicholas shumaker | December 27, 2013 8:12 AM

    Miles is correct in most cases. Searchlight only owns NA. BIM licensed the film for a price from Lionsgate/Summit and, as far as I can tell, is not engaged in a "service deal." When that happens, the key art is transferred to the local distributor and depending on the contract signed that local distributor often has the right to alter the domestic key art (photos, et.) to fit their market. Not saying this isn't absurd--as it is--but I'd doubt the blame falls on Lionsgate in this case.
    Otherwise informative and well-researched article.

  • Miles Maker | December 24, 2013 2:16 PM

    Summit Entertainment is the sales agent--which means they sell the film to the territory's buyer, who then designs marketing imagery and cuts the trailer to their liking as they see fit (within reason and contractual fine print) to sell the movie locally as they know best and to recoup their expenditure.

    In this case, that company is BIM. The signage may very well be unapproved. Until Lionsgate/Summit is made aware of it, they simply don't have the bandwidth to monitor as many as 60+ potential foreign territories to police the buyers' sales strategies. However for a situation as blatant as this, Lionsgate/Summit is more than willing to 'save face' for this award-winning films and apply pressure to its foreign licensee.

  • Tambay | December 23, 2013 9:09 PM

    Not sure where you're getting your info from either, but give Summit Entertainment a call and ask them. It could be that this BIM is the local, on-the-ground handler, or is a subsidiary of the parent company, but Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate are the sales and distributor of the film internationally. I'm 100% sure of that. Ultimately, the responsibility lies at their doorstep.

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