Chris Rock has made a career of being blunt, particularly about race. So when he wrote in the Hollywood Reporter last week that the movie business is “a white industry,” his appraisal was familiarly provocative. And by most measures, his remark was also right.
Black films account for a tiny fraction of big studios’ output. Budgets tend to be small, and distribution is limited largely to domestic theaters. Rock’s new film, Top Five, which opens in wide release this weekend, features a mostly black cast and isn’t mainly about race. Those kinds of films are rarely made by large Hollywood studios. Top Five was produced by Barry Diller’s IAC Films.
As white as the film industry remains today, black films play a more significant economic role in Hollywood than they did 30 years ago. To get a handle on the numbers, Bloomberg Businessweek sifted through the 100 top-grossing movies in the domestic market for each year since 1980 and identified films we could comfortably categorize as African American. This is, as we readily admit, a fraught and inexact sorting, since there’s no simple consensus among scholars and critics as to what constitutes an African American movie.
We chose to focus on films primarily concerned with African American culture and identity. Again, it’s a subjective list: A buddy flicks such as Lethal Weapon didn’t make our list of African American films, but Beverly Hills Cop was included on the basis of its black hero. The 2012 film Flight, which stars Denzel Washington, was excluded because race doesn’t inform the story to the same extent.
There’s room for debate, yet by nearly any reckoning more African American films are represented in the top 100 today than in the 1980s.
Comedians have played a pivotal role in the growth of black cinema. In the early 1980s, Richard Pryor starred in the most commercially successful African American films. Later that decade, he was joined by fellow comics Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy. By the end of the 1980s, black movies had become a fixture in the domestic market, if a small one, and such directors as Spike Lee started making serious films that often dealt explicitly with race.
In each year from 1990 to 2009, at least five African American films were among the 100 biggest moneymakers in the U.S. and Canada, although by our crude measure the gains on that list stalled around the turn of the century. There was a steep dip in the wake of the financial crisis, followed by a noticeable rebound.
Comedy remains an important genre at the black box office. Through Dec. 3, seven African American films ranked among the top 100 so far this year, and the comedian Kevin Hart is in three: Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, and About Last Night. (Hart is also in Top Five.) Together, those three comedies had grossed nearly a quarter-billion dollars in the domestic market.
The demand for African American film makes sense, drawing support from increasingly diverse audiences as well as the sizable proportion of African Americans in the U.S. moviegoing population. Blacks account for about 13 percent of the domestic film audience, and the average black person sees about four films in theaters a year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
It’s hard to overstate the influence of filmmaker Tyler Perry on the recent mainstream success of African American movies. From 2005 to 2013, Perry had at least one film in the top 100; in six of those years he had at least two. There are some signs of regression: His latest Madea film, Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Neighbors From Hell, went straight to DVD in April and grossed $9 million.
Perry’s films typically have small production budgets. His first feature film, Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which was released in 2005, cost less than $6 million to make and grossed more than $50 million domestically. In 2006, he founded his own studio and continued to make films for relatively little money.
That set up a Catch-22 for many black filmmakers, says Monica White Ndounou, a Tufts professor who has studied the economics of black cinema and the author of Shaping the Future of African American Film. Perry demonstrated the viability of black films that weren’t necessarily about race, but he also proved they could be made on a shoestring budget, making it harder for other black filmmakers to secure funding for bigger projects. “Once one type of thing makes money,” Ndounou says, ”the studios want more of that.”
Although large studios are now funneling more resources into films with the potential to be marketed internationally, Ndounou says many Hollywood executives ignore people of color in marketing overseas. As a result, studios miss out on distribution opportunities abroad, and their funding for African American films grows more scarce.
All of which means that looking only at the top 100 downplays much of the progress African American films have made. Many filmmakers seeking to make African American movies are now circumventing the big studios, which might mean a smaller theatrical release but commercial success elsewhere. And because African American films tend to have low costs, Ndounou points out that many post larger margins than some blockbusters.
In researching her book, Ndounou looked at the budgets of all films co-produced and distributed by the studio Screen Gems for U.S. release between 1999 and 2012. Of those 43 movies, 14 had mostly black casts and cost about $187 million, on average, to produce. The other 29 cost $762 million. In the domestic market, the black films had a return on investment of about 184 percent, compared with 39 percent for the white films.
Top Five, which follows a black comedian’s attempt to move into movies, reportedly cost around $10 million to make. At that price, a strong opening weekend in wide release could mean an instant windfall for its backers—and the success still might not translate into bigger studio support for black films.