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About That Popular 'Black Films Don't Sell Overseas' Industry Belief... Reality, Or Just Laziness?

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 28, 2013 at 10:07PM

I tried posting this as a comment in Sergio's box office post, in response to the ongoing debate about black American films and international box office, but the comment module wouldn't let me do so. So I'm just publishing it as a post of its own, further fleshing out, and adding to what I was initially going to post as a comment.
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Think Like A Man

I tried posting this as a comment in Sergio's box office post, in response to the ongoing debate about black American films and international box office, but the comment module wouldn't let me do so. So I'm just publishing it as a post of its own, further fleshing out, and adding to what I was initially going to post as a comment.

Let's just kill this idea that black films don't play overseas, because it's just not true. 

There's an entire world out there folks; "overseas" or "foreign" doesn't mean "non-black." There are black people in countries around the world who crave images of black people on film, maybe even more-so than we do here in the USA. 

It may come as a surprise to some of you that, even though we lament the lack of representation of black people in film and TV here in the USA, it's far worse in other countries in which blacks are also in the minority. Just ask our friends in the UK, France, Germany, and other European nations. Even in Brazil.

And some of them look to the USA for the representation that's lacking where they are. Their numbers may not be considered high enough by some international distributors to be worth the effort - or, they're not even considered at all, even as an under-served niche, which I think is unfortunate, because there's an untapped worldwide audience out there that's being ignored. 

In France and England for example, the black population in each country is about 3%, compared to 14% here in the USA. But they are interested in black American cinema. And then of course, you have the entire continent of Africa. Granted not every country in Africa is in a position to partake in the business of film entertainment, with some countries in some state of unrest due to one conflict or another, to put it simply. But there are several countries within the continent that American cinema does travel to - including black American cinema. 

I've been tracking box office results of black American films since this site started in 2009, and two of the largest foreign markets for Black American cinema are South Africa and the UK. You'll also find markets in Nigeria, Ghana, Germany, Australia, and others. Black American films have screened in these countries in the last 4 years since I started tracking, and have done well enough in some cases. Maybe there wasn't much fanfare made around their overseas releases because they weren't blockbusters, but it might come as a surprise to some that a lot of them, if not most, were released internationally, with South Africa and the UK being two of the most popular territories. Likely because, in part, English is either the primary or, an official language that's spoken widely.

In fact, some films were released very wide overseas - and, by the way, I'm not even counting movies with superstars like Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Eddie Murphy. I'm not looking at films with any of those actors in them. What I've learned is that if a distribution company really wants to push a film overseas, they can and will do it. Damn whatever the popular belief is about that kind of film. They'll find a way if they believe in that film, and have the resources.

Last year alone, Think Like Man was released in about 15 international territories. It made $1.2 million in South Africa alone (not bad for a country that's about 15% the size of the USA in terms of population). To compare, films with much higher budgets, and much more recognizable stars, that did very well here in the USA, actually made LESS than Think Like A Man did in South Africa. For example, a critical and commercial hit, also released last year in Zero Dark Thirty only grossed $185,000 in South Africa! The Tom Cruise movie, Jack Reacher with Cruise as still one of the biggest international stars left, made $1.1 million in South Africa. 21 Jump Street the movie, made $650,000 in South Africa. And I could go on...

But the point is, Think Like A Man did far better, or just about the same in South Africa alone, when compared to a lot of mainstream (read: white) Hollywood movies, that cost a lot more than it did. 

It even fared better than Argo did in that country.

Think Like A Man made another $1.1 million in England (not bad for a country that's also about 15% the size of the USA, with a black population that's just over 3%). Zero Dark Thirty made over $5 million in that territory. And the others did even better, making around $15 million each in England. But that makes sense. Unlike South Africa where blacks, especially what we could call "upwardly mobile blacks" (you might have read about the recent rise of the black middle class in that country, although there's still a wealth gap between the races) make up about 70% of the country's population, it's the opposite in the UK, where white's are in the majority. With the majority of the country's population being black, I can only then assume that this statistic had something to do with the film's success in that country. It's also the only BRICS country in all of Africa - newly industrialized countries with large, fast-growing economies to start.

Even Sparkle was released overseas in about 8 countries. Most of Tyler Perry's movies have been released overseas. Also last year, Beasts Of The Southern Wild was released in quite a lot of countries overseas. Yes, obviously the critical acclaim certainly helped, as well as the international film festival exposure, and the way it was marketed. But, it still stands as a film that tells a story centered around black lead characters, so the idea that there isn't much interest in, or understanding of stories about black people, overseas, or that black stories are so damn esoteric, just doesn't fly. 

Also, Precious played very well overseas. Does any movie get any *blacker* than that? In fact, 25% of its total worldwide box office gross came from overseas. 

For Colored Girls was released overseas; Just Wright was released overseas. Notorious was released overseas; Even Jumping The Broom was released overseas, grossing almost $400,000 in South Africa, and another $160,000 in Trinidad & Tobago, and another $150,000 in Nigeria.

So yes, black American films are indeed traveling. And yes, they aren't all international blockbusters. BUT I'd say the same thing about countless mainstream (read: white) movies that didn't exactly set the international box office on fire, especially relative to budget, which is key. In fact, some did rather poorly overseas. 

I'd further say that American-made movies in general that weren't within the top 50 highest grossing films of any given year (in the USA, domestically), weren't sure-bets overseas. Meaning, if it was a blockbuster in the USA, it likely also was a blockbuster overseas. But how many movies each year are what we'd call blockbusters? That's why I said, if a film isn't in the top 50 domestic grossers, international box office success is far from guaranteed or constant.

So just like mainstream movies, some black films are doing better than others overseas. They haven't all been huge box office champs in other countries. But some did very well (especially relative to budget) in places that you would be surprised by, as far away as Taiwan, Bahrain, Russia, the UAE and others, for example. It really depends on how they're marketed and certainly, critical acclaim helps, which shouldn't be a surprise. 

If anything, one lesson I can share, and something that we've been encouraging here on S&A for a long time, is that it's even more important that black American filmmakers send their films to overseas film festivals. That early film festival play, especially if well-received, only helps the film if it's later released in that country. In fact, it could serve as your entry into that country - countries you might not think would be receptive to black cinema.

Keep in mind that there are black film festivals all over the world. Or mainstream festivals that include black cinema sections. For example, I recently received an invitation to attend a film festival in Krakow, Poland - the OFF Plus CAMERA International Festival of Independent Cinema. It's not a black film festival, but, this year, they had a black cinema sidebar, and I believe a related panel, because I know Ava DuVernay was also invited, and I think was on a panel; and she did attend the festival. But I couldn't. And if you think it's just some "no-name" festival, because it's not Cannes or Sundance, the fact that they are able to attract the likes of Luc Besson, Jane Campion, Roger Christian, Costa-Gavras, Richard Jenkins, Roland Joffé, Melissa Leo, Elvis Mitchell, and others, tells you a little something about how respected they are internationally, and what kind of pull they have.

But the point is that, some might never consider that there'd be an audience in Poland for black American cinema. Yet, there is - at least, there's definite interest.

And that's just one example.

So think globally, not just locally. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You'd be really limiting yourself. 

In summary, there are markets overseas for black American cinema, especially where black people reside. And, as I've said, several films have taken advantage of that already, and continue to do so. Just imagine - if there wasn't this self-fulfilling fear that still limits these films from playing even wider overseas, they would be reaching even more audiences, and making even more money than they already are. 

And I still don't buy the idea that these films can't cross over, because they most certainly do. Marketing and acclaim can help in that regard. A film that's well-made (writing, directing, acting, etc) is certainly a good start.

Eventually, someone will realize that there's a lot of money to be made in pockets here and there, if you do your homework and target the right countries. But it's a lazy industry. Nobody wants to be first. Meanwhile, I have friends, family and acquaintances in countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, parts of the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Russia, parts of Asia, the Caribbean and South America, who are buying American-made bootlegs of a lot of these black American films. 

Why?

Not because they're a cheap bunch of people, and don't want to spend the money to see these films in theaters. The problem is, these films aren't being officially released in those countries for these folks to pay to go see them in theaters in their individual countries.

There's a lot more to be said here; it's not so black & white an issue...

By the way, I used the universally-accepted Box Office Mojo as my source for the above data.


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