Cynthia Erivo: Why a Theater Buyout Was Significant for 'Harriet'

Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF
Cynthia Erivo at the Arlington Theatre during the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

"What it means is that there's an army of people supporting not just the film but me as well," the double Oscar nominee says.

Last spring, ahead of Universal’s release of the Tina Gordon-directed comedy Little, star Issa Rae hatched a big plan to drum up support: She challenged Insecure pal Yvonne Orji to buy out a screening. Orji accepted and fulfilled the request, then kept it going by asking someone else who asked someone else who asked someone else who eventually asked Cynthia Erivo.

So, when people started plunking down plastic to reserve entire theaters for Harriet when it came out Nov. 1, Erivo knew the significance of the gesture because she’d extended it herself. “I love the idea of supporting others in that way,” she told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet ahead of accepting an award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. “What it means is that there’s an army of people supporting not just the film but me as well. That they wanted to share it with others who might not have been able to buy a ticket meant a lot.”

What it means to the wallet depends on the location of the theater and the date and time of the screening, with insiders telling THR that tabs typically range from $1,000 to $2,500. Those who can afford it say the price is dwarfed by the payoff: to help build awareness, spread positive word-of-mouth, offer viewing experiences for audiences who need it, and support stories told by and about women and/or people of color.

Harriet marks Erivo’s first time carrying a film, so having that support also meant shining a spotlight on a film directed by a black woman (Kasi Lemmons) with a black woman in the lead role. Audiences — including those in Dallas who selected it as part a November "Black Women Buy Out" — flocked to the film to see Erivo as American hero Harriet Tubman. It generated north of $43 million at the box-office (on a $20 million budget) and garnered Erivo two Academy Award nominations — one for best actress and another for original song for co-writing “Stand Up” with Joshuah Brian Campbell. 

The current phenomenon of theater buyouts cannot be mentioned without a nod to the successful bow of Crazy Rich Asians in August 2018, when influencers combined their considerable digital muscle with cash to help boost the debut of Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the hit novel. That movement, now called #GoldOpen, has since supported more than a dozen Asian-led and multicultural films; struck partnerships with AMC, Regal and Landmark; and expanded its oversight with an official advisory council.

#GoldOpen’s influence has impacted the current awards season with buyouts recorded for such films as Universal’s Queen & Slim and Warner Bros.’ Just Mercy. Snoop Dogg, Kelly Rowland, Big Sean and Roxane Gay bought showings for the former while John Legend, Lena Waithe, and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West picked up tabs for the latter. “It helps build momentum,” says one veteran awards strategist of why it’s becoming more common. “Sometimes it’s an official campaign and other times it’s just friends of the talent who do it because they actually love the film.”

Erivo has felt the love and says that she’s tried to be present for as many buyouts of Harriet as she could, and if not, “I would FaceTime in” to show gratitude. “No one has to emit that kind of kindness so when they do, I want to be present for it,” she says. “Because it’s amazing.”

A version of this story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.