Author Topic: Films with black stars look to cross the international 'color line'  (Read 1856 times)

Offline Curtis Metcalf

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Films with black stars look to cross the international 'color line'
By Michael Cieply
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
International Herald Tribune

LOS ANGELES: When Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and company blasted their way through three "Dreamgirls" songs on the Academy Awards broadcast, they also had a message for the millions watching around the world:

It wouldn't hurt to buy a movie ticket.

"Dreamgirls" is a solid hit in the United States, with more than $100 million in domestic box office sales, and its backers at DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures have been tiptoeing into the international marketplace. They hope that a couple of Oscars and a globe- spanning broadcast of the trio's performance will help overcome any foreign resistance to the musical genre and — more ticklishly — to a nearly all-black cast.

Only recently have movies begun to crack one of Hollywood's most troubling and least openly discussed problems: an international "color line" behind which films relying on black stars often do not perform well. The box office prowess of "Dreamgirls" overseas will help signal whether this newfound success is fleeting or more lasting.

"I always call international the new South, " said Reginald Hudlin, the director of "House Party" and "The Ladies Man" and now the entertainment president of BET Networks. "In the old days, they told you black films don't travel down South. Now they say it's not going to travel overseas."

Most Hollywood executives, producers and analysts interviewed for this article delicately maintained that the resistance to black performers abroad had had less to do with bigotry than with the international audience's lack of experience with the humor or urban situations that figure in many of their films. Some in the industry, though, were more blunt.

"The international marketplace is still fairly racist," said James Ulmer, proprietor of the Ulmer Scale, which compiles input from about 100 international film professionals in a periodic rating of stars' "bankability." In Ulmer's rating, Will Smith, the highest- ranked black star, placed No.12 overall last year, behind Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey and others.

This state of affairs may be changing. According to figures compiled by the box office reporting service Boxofficemojo.com, a series of 2005 films that staked their success squarely on black leads showed a strength in foreign theaters that has rarely been seen since Eddie Murphy had a period of global appeal after "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984).

"Inside Man" and "Déjà Vu," both starring Denzel Washington, had more than half of their ticket sales abroad, while "Big Momma's House 2," starring Martin Lawrence, approached that level despite conventional industry wisdom that says comedies with actors of color don't travel well.

Films with these actors have usually been soft at the international box office, though Washington did well when paired with Hanks in "Philadelphia," as did Lawrence when acting with Smith in the "Bad Boys" films. Smith's "Hitch," released in 2005, did well overseas, collecting more than half of its $368 million in ticket sales abroad and capping his reputation as a star whose appeal transcends race in some of the most difficult markets. In fact, Smith's earlier success had pointed the way for contemporary black stars when "Bad Boys" unexpectedly became an international hit.

"The studio was deathly afraid that an action movie with two African-American movie stars would never travel the world," said Teddy Zee, who was an executive at Sony's Columbia unit when it made "Bad Boys" and was later among the producers of Smith's "Hitch" and "The Pursuit of Happyness." "Efforts to sell it off failed. Columbia was stuck with international. But it did so well."

Today Hollywood no longer considers international marketing an afterthought. Executives who deal with international markets said that major studios had quietly fostered an openness in Europe and Asia by investing heavily in the promotion of a small number of black stars, particularly Smith and Washington, who often play roles that might easily have been cast with a Brad Pitt or a Russell Crowe.

Washington and his "Déjà Vu" co-star Paula Patton, for instance, traveled abroad and did extensive promotional work by satellite and with visiting reporters as part of a Walt Disney Company-sponsored push that appears likely to yield as much as $115 million in international ticket sales, or around 64 percent of the film's expected worldwide total, said Mark Zoradi, president of the Walt Disney motion pictures group.

The shifting economics of the movie business are the main reason for this change. International sources now account for more than half of studios' revenue. According to figures compiled by Kagan Research, American companies last year got 52 percent of about $48.2 billion in revenue from foreign sources, a share that has been expanding in recent years after hovering in the 40 percent range.

After five weeks in several international markets, "Dreamgirls" has taken in only about $28 million abroad, or roughly 22 percent of its total ticket sales, according to reported figures. But the film recently opened at No.1 in a key market, Japan, displacing Smith's "Pursuit of Happyness" (from Sony Pictures Entertainment) and putting two films with black stars atop the box office.

According to Rob Moore, Paramount's president for worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment, "Dreamgirls" appears likely to wind up with about $60 million in foreign ticket sales, or roughly 38 percent of its expected total.

Still, many black stars have continued to see their work slighted abroad. In the past two years, according to the Boxofficemojo figures, "Hustle & Flow," starring Terrence Howard, did only about 6 percent of its box office business abroad; "Are We There Yet?," with Ice Cube, did about 16 percent; and "Last Holiday," with Queen Latifah, did 11 percent, despite its setting in a European mountain resort.

Chris McGurk, the chief executive of Overture Films, was vice chairman of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when it released the two "Barbershop" films, starring Ice Cube, to big business at home. They earned virtually nothing abroad. "For an international audience, when it looks like an urban movie with an African- American star in the lead, they just turn it off," he said. "I find that incredibly discouraging."
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Offline Hypestyle

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Re: Films with black stars look to cross the international 'color line'
« Reply #1 on: February 28, 2007, 01:16:49 pm »
...IMO, these ignorant policies are self-encouraged by the establishment running many studios.. in interviews i've read with Fred Williamson, he tells of the 70's era, finding out that foreign distributors were buying the film rights for black movies from USA studios for pennies on the dollar, then making money hand over fist; which prompted him to start self-producing & directing directly with overseas film distributors..
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Offline Reginald Hudlin

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Re: Films with black stars look to cross the international 'color line'
« Reply #2 on: March 01, 2007, 03:45:46 am »
Hey, it cut off my quote at the end!

Offline The Dark Wright

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Re: Films with black stars look to cross the international 'color line'
« Reply #3 on: March 01, 2007, 07:51:01 am »
Hey, it cut off my quote at the end!

What'd it (you) say, Reggie?

Offline Open palm

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Re: Films with black stars look to cross the international 'color line'
« Reply #4 on: March 01, 2007, 10:15:00 am »
I live in a country where American films dominate the theaters. The public here is more interested in action films and romantic dramas. Comedies are a little harder to sell because the sense of humour here is a little different. But if the U.S. studios like WB promote it big, the people here will catch it regardless of the color of the actor. Deja Vu did well over here. I think they also like Will Smith's films. But if smaller, independant groups can't make strong deals overseas, they'll never get a piece of the pie.  They'll just get crumbs like cable TV broadcasts months later. I bet that doesn't earn as much as theater and video distribution.  :(
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