Berlin: African-American Film, TV Projects Strive for Global Crossover

Selma Still - H 2014
Atsushi Nishijima

Selma Still - H 2014

"We haven’t had a black TV show go global since 'The Cosby Show,'" says one European TV buyer as 'Selma' and 'Empire' aim to challenge the status quo overseas.

This could be the year that films with African-American themes break the color barrier. From studio productions like Sony’s Annie to Paramount pickups Selma (screening in Berlin Feb. 10) and Chris Rock’s Top Five to Sundance success stories like Justin Simien’s Dear White People in 2014 and Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope this year, films with primarily African-American casts and storylines are looking to bury the cliche that black movies are a niche genre abroad. It’s a cliche that unfortunately still has the ring of truth. Any major international sales company attending Berlin’s EFM will admit foreign buyers have a harder time committing to a title with mainly black faces onscreen.

“It’s a dilemma that baffles me, because we should be making money overseas,” says Lee Daniels, director of The Butler, which proved the doubters wrong by grossing some $60 million outside North America. “I think people everywhere are fascinated with African-American culture. Clearly, Beyonce is a hit. Clearly, Obama is a hit everywhere except in America with white people. African-American films should be making money overseas.”

As should African-American television. Empire, the hip-hop primetime soap that Daniels developed and is a ratings hit for Fox, will be a test case for the international market.

Empire’s success speaks for itself, but it will be a tough sell because we haven’t had a black TV show go global since The Cosby Show and that was the first,” says one European television buyer who nevertheless picked up Empire for his home territory.

Damon D’Oliveira, producer of historic miniseries The Book of Negroes, which is screening at EFM, says he hopes African-American content is “crossing a threshold” when it comes to its international appeal. Book of Negroes, starring Aunjanue Ellis and Cuba Gooding Jr., attracted 2 million viewers in its debut on Canada’s CBC network in January and will go out on BET later this month. Entertainment One, which is handling world sales for Book of Negroes, says it has closed deals for much of Europe on the miniseries.

“The world is becoming more multicultural,” says D’Oliveira. “Walking around Berlin, you see it isn’t an all-white city as it was maybe 20 to 30 years ago. Neither is Europe. The world is hungry for all kinds of stories now.”

“It’s true that international territories have been resistant [to African-American content],” says Cameron McCracken, managing director of British film group Pathe and executive producer on Selma, “[but] the commercial success of projects like The Help, The Butler and most recently 12?Years a Slave, they started to shift the needle.”

Just how far that needle has moved is indicated by Simien’s Dear White People, a film about African-American Ivy League students navigating campus race relations. A sleeper hit at home, with a $4.4 million gross, the film also has sold solidly abroad, with Brian O’Shea’s The Exchange closing deals for territories including France, the U.K., South Korea, Australia and?Turkey.

But Simien believes there is still a long way to go. “When we were trying to get Dear White People made, we were told flat out that 90?percent of investors that invest in independent film that would have been available if we had a white cast were not available to us,” he says. “It’s still the case that black movies seem to only come in a couple of forms: the historic, tragedy-tinged story of our history, our struggle, and the superfluous, light fluffy comedy. Our people have a broad range of experiences and our cinema, our culture, should reflect that.

Adds Simien: “Every year there are a couple black movies that do well and suddenly all of Hollywood’s racial problems are over. I think it’s all very well-meaning and there is room to celebrate, but the problems are still there.”