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This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Universal decided to open the comedy sequel The Best Man Holiday on Nov. 15, executives never dreamed it would face competition from the harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave. But after the Steve McQueen-directed Oscar contender fared especially well after expanding nationwide, the two films featuring African-American stars went head-to-head — and both thrived. Never before has such a diverse slate of black-led films performed so well at the box office as they have in recent months.
While traditional fare such as Best Man Holiday is prospering, Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 12 Years a Slave have exceeded expectations by appealing to both black and white audiences. They defy the Hollywood convention (or stereotype) that black moviegoers are interested only in aspirational comedies such as Best Man Holiday or that white audiences won’t watch a film about the black experience. “A quarter of a century ago, these movies wouldn’t have crossed over to a white audience,” says Erik Lomis, distribution chief at The Weinstein Co., which released Fruitvale and The Butler.
Or even a year ago. In January 2012, whites made up a scant 7 percent of the opening audience of Red Tails, George Lucas‘ movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the Air Force’s first black pilots (when releasing the movie, Lucas blasted studios for refusing to make black films). That compares with about 43 percent for 12 Years a Slave and 55 percent for The Butler. Some of the top-performing theaters for both films are in white suburbs.
“This year, you are seeing a perfect storm in terms of the level of acceptance,” says Gil Robertson, a founder of the African-American Film Critics Association. “Given the climate now — obviously, we have a black president — American film audiences are more open to seeing stories that reflect the diversity of people in this country.”
During the summer, Fruitvale — about a real-life shooting in an Oakland, Calif., train station — grossed just north of $16 million, becoming one of the most successful independent films of the year. That was followed by The Butler, which has taken in $146.6 million worldwide, including $115.5 million domestically. The Butler‘s success in crossing over is attributed to Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker, mainstream stars who relentlessly promoted the film. Fox Searchlight’s 12 Years also has confounded observers in playing to both art house and commercial audiences, whether white or black, thanks to awards buzz.
Following Best Man Holiday, which exceeded expectations with $30.1 million in its opening bow, three other African-American-fronted films are coming soon. Over Thanksgiving, Searchlight will release Black Nativity, a musical drama based on the Langston Hughes play. And Dec. 13, Lionsgate opens Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, the first Perry film to bow during the competitive year-end season. On Christmas, The Weinstein Co. will expand Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, starring Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, nationwide. The collective success of these films could have a big impact on studio willingness to make more black-fronted films.
African-Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population and account for about 11 percent of movie tickets sold. This is large enough to warrant more studio attention, according to Jeff Clanagan, CEO of Codeblack Films, a division of Lionsgate. Its concert pic Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain took in $32.2 million at the domestic box office this year. “What you are seeing now is diversification within the urban genre,” says Clanagan. “We also are seeing a more diverse audience come out to support these films.”
Searchlight co-president Steve Gilula is heartened by what’s happening. “In Salt Lake City, for example, 12 Years came in No. 3 behind Thor 2 and Ender’s Game on one recent weekend,” he says. “One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we are more and more of a rainbow country in terms of ethnicity and blended families. Rigid lines are starting to break down in terms of cinema, too.”
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