Cannes: Black Films Gain Momentum at Market, Festival

Courtesy of White Spark Creative
'Fifty Shades of Black'

High-profile projects signal that international resistance to films with black narratives might be softening.

The 68th Cannes Film Festival is being hyped as the year of the woman. But it might also be aptly dubbed the year of the black film.

Given the slew of projects being shopped at the Cannes film market that features black narratives — notably a Barack Obama-inspired love story Southside With You, Chiraq (Spike Lee's reimagining of the Greek comedy Lysistrata), Jeff Nichols' Loving about an interracial couple in the 1950s and spoof film Fifty Shades of Black — as well as Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope playing in the Director’s Fortnight section of the festival, there are signs that fare once deemed ice cold in international markets is heating up.

For years, the prevailing wisdom has been that black films don't generate money internationally. Think Like a Man, Get on Up and an About Last Night remake all made less than 5 percent of their worldwide box-office overseas. Even a film like George Lucas-financed and produced Red Tails, about a group of African-American pilots in World War II, was never released internationally. Nor was Jackie Robinson biopic 42.

But Stuart Ford's IM Global, which is handling sales on Southside, Chiraq and Fifty Shades, is particularly bullish. Buoyed by the international success of his company's The Butler, which surprised with $60 million worldwide, Ford says the tide is changing with regard to films occupying this space.

"There’s been a sea change in audience taste in popular culture right across the board in the past few years," he says. "We see multicultural films as a big opportunity in the marketplace."

Ford says Fifty Shades already has sparked bidding wars in four territories — including Latin America, Italy and Germany — just one day into the market.

Despite the strong showing at Cannes, buyers expressed skepticism.

“Anything that's not big with broad appeal is hard to sell in this market," says Alexander van Dulmen of A Company, who buys films for Russia and Eastern Europe. "Having a black cast on top of that doesn't help matters. It's not as much about the appeal of black stars as the genre. If Will Smith started making urban social dramas in North Carolina, people would be, 'Who's Will Smith?' ”

Sellers, too, questioned whether black films are becoming more palatable to global audiences. “It's absolutely still the case that a black cast is harder to sell internationally," says Pascal Brono, president of sales group Conquistador Entertainment. People say 'they're all racists,' but it's not the case. There just aren't any black people in Japan, there aren't many native black people in Italy or Spain. It's not that they are racist. There's just no cultural comparison for them."

Historically, one of the reasons why distributors have been cautious with African-American movies is the cost of P&A needed to reach an audience in countries without large black or African immigrant communities. But as the distribution model evolves overseas and the emphasis on traditional theatrical releases is softening, companies like IM Global are finding greater opportunity to monetize this content. In a more digital universe, it’s becoming easier to target an audience with niche content and cheaper to release such fare without spending P&A.

"I’m finding that distributors are increasingly open to this type of content," Ford says. "I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't profitable."