According to a 2011 BET study, on average, African-Americans buy movie tickets 13.4 times a year versus 11 times for a general market that includes Caucasians and Hispanics. African-Americans watch 40 percent more television than the general market. The percentage of people in the country who are African-American is 12.6 percent. The percentage of people in the entertainment industry making movies and television for the African-American market is Tyler Perry.
Obviously, I’m exaggerating — but not by much. The implications to this are primarily social, but to put it in terms that really matter to Hollywood, leaving this big of an audience unserved is bad business. On the list of the top-grossing 100 movies released last year, the only ones with a central African-American cast were Madea’s Big Happy Family, Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, and Jumping the Broom. (There was also The Help, which, two Oscar-nominated African-American actresses aside, was a movie told from a white point of view, with a white lead actress, white director, and based on a book by a white woman.) And during the 2010–2011 broadcast television season, there was only one network series with a black protagonist on the air: The Cleveland Show. Once you get past the big-studio film releases and broadcast networks, you can find Kevin Hart’s surprisingly successful Laugh at My Pain standup concert movie and Dee Rees’s Pariah, which garnered great reviews and awards in Focus’s limited release, and BET produces programming for the black market while Tyler Perry has his own night of sitcoms on TBS — but that doesn’t change the fact that the dominant entertainment companies don’t see much value in catering to the black audience. It didn’t use to be this way: In 1991, Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City, Jungle Fever, House Party 2, and A Rage in Harlem were among the 100 top-grossing films of the year and the network schedules contained seven shows with predominantly black casts, including In Living Color, The Cosby Show, and A Different World. (All ended up becoming crossover hits, but didn’t get that way by having the network insert a Caucasian lead in the attempt to make the shows more palatable to white viewers.) Five years later, when UPN and the WB networks were starting out and looking to establish an audience as quickly as possible, that number increased to thirteen African-American shows. And strangely, if you go back even further in time — long before we had a black president, black secretaries of State, or black CEOs at companies like American Express, Merck, and Time Warner — one could argue that programming that prominently featured African-Americans was even stronger, with shows like The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son found on networks with largely white shows, as opposed to being segregated onto two struggling networks. Why have things been moving backwards, not forwards, and why are the major entertainment companies shunning a vibrant market that is only becoming more economically valuable, culturally and politically important, and ripe for crossover appeal? Here are a few of Hollywood’s main rationales:
1. Culturally specific movies and TV shows are considered inherently “niche,” with less blockbuster potential than product that appeals to everyone. The strategy of broadcast networks and major movie studios has become increasingly big-hit oriented. They want every show to be NCIS and every movie to be Transformers, which means going for a wider audience rather than a narrower one. The theory is that black and white people alike will go see Avatar or Fast and the Furious XXI, but whites won’t go see For Colored Girls, so it isn’t worth it to produce a film or TV show that has a limited audience, even though there is a proven core starved for that kind of production.
2. There is a perception, especially with movies, that African-American actors don’t sell overseas —unless, of course, they are Will Smith or Denzel Washington, but only in a thriller or action movie. I have on more than one occasion been told that a studio wouldn’t approve a black lead in one of my films because it would bring down the international numbers.
3. In my sixteen years as a producer and my preceding nine years as an agent, I’ve never had to persuade an African-American executive that they should give me a green light on a project. The people running networks and studios today, as it was in the past, are a remarkably homogenous group, made up of educated white people from upper-middle-class backgrounds. Anyone making a decision on the viability of a creative project naturally brings his or her own proclivities to that decision. Connecting to a drama means having empathy and understanding of the circumstances of the characters; enjoying a comedy depends on one’s sense of humor and the experiences through which it developed. That nobody black has the final say on what gets produced in Hollywood has to have an effect.
The first two of the above factors are just lame and should be dismissed within the industry, as they are nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies. Because black films are thought of as “niche,” they end up being marketed as if they are for only one group of people. Take Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds, which opens this Friday. It’s a drama about a wealthy black executive whose life changes when he gets to know a single mother in need of help. Marketing for the film seems overfocused on the African-American audience: You’ll see billboards in black neighborhoods and few in areas where white people live. And like Perry’s previous movies, it will probably get little play outside the U.S.: His Why Did I Get Married Too, which did $60 million at the domestic box office, was only released in South Africa and Crotia overseas, taking in just $578,120. But is Good Deeds any more “niche” than 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, a big domestic and international hit about a struggling black businessman who takes custody of his son when his wife leaves him? The main difference is that the latter stars Will Smith, so it is not thought of as “niche” and Columbia marketed it all over the world as a broad-based film. But keep in mind that Will Smith only became the star that he is because he was marketed early as a “star” — not a “black star” — and audiences accepted him as such. The egg has to come before the chicken and that means going for it with certain films and actors to break them out of their niche. The African-American market needs to be seen as a strong core from which to build a larger audience of the general public, both in the U.S. and abroad. Black music artists are huge everywhere, so why can’t that happen with more of our black actors and their films? When rap was starting out, I would bet there were white executives who never predicted how all of their kids would someday be rapping the words to every song on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
The best way to reverse the above misconceptions would be to promote some black people to the top jobs in the industry. I’m sure this will happen eventually — there are many talented, younger, black executives at studios and networks — but it will likely take a long time. The best possible scenario would be if a new film and television studio were created that focused on African-American consumers. It would surely succeed, given how hungry and wide open the market is: Just look at how rich Tyler Perry has become and he is just one guy doing mostly his own projects. Oprah is too caught up with her struggling cable network to take this on, and Robert Johnson, billionaire founder of BET, said in 2006 that he was forming a company to produce African-American content, but nothing has come of that. So, the best candidate to step up and do this is Sean Combs. Forbes estimates his wealth at $500 million, he was an executive producer on the successful film Notorious, and he did a pretty good job acting in Get Him to the Greek. More important, Combs knows how to market African-American-oriented product to the general public, as he has done successfully with music, clothing, and vodka. It seems like such an obvious idea for Diddy that I can’t believe it hasn’t yet been realized. If any of you have his e-mail address, feel free to forward this column and let him know I’m there for him if he needs any advice … then again, given how badly old white guys in Hollywood have blown it with this end of the business, my best advice would be to ignore people like me.
Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone