What we ought to be most loathed of is when “bean counters” dress themselves up as film critics and/or nestle themselves in film festival administrations or studio executive positions as gatekeepers to inhibit the progression of art for the Godless sake of profit. And what I mean by “bean counters” are those industry professionals or observers who can quote you chapter and verse about the box office numbers of any film and detail for you in a single breath audience demographics, per screen averages, production budgets, above-the-line costs, SAG minimums, points on the gross, and the increase in the price of chewing gum from the year a film was made when it is adjusted for inflation today.
But these very “bean counters” rarely tell you anything as equally in depth and detailed about the experience of a film, whether you’re making one or seeing one; they have no love for the art of film. Film is just a consumer product to them with all the prestige of ordering a “Big Mac”. Movies are simply a business practice made up of products (individual films) that they have reduced to cold hard box-office numbers and numbers don’t lie… or do they?
The explicit purpose of this article is to challenge the soulless money grubbing mentality that infects African-American filmmaking. I’m talking about that reductive,” If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense,” ethos that crushes the idealism, passion and ambition of African-American filmmakers by reducing the practice of filmmaking to a cold calculated cash grab cloaked in hypocritical “uplift the race” sentiments and backed up by over generalized demographic evidence.
Film is an art form –and I know this doesn’t get repeated enough today because no one wants to appear as a fool- but I’ll bear that insult and say it again: film is an art form and all the bean-counters in the world can retort,” Film is also a business,” but they cannot deny the fact that film is also an art form even if they choose to ignore it by only looking at the box-office grosses and convincing others to do the same.
We would do well to keep in mind as we investigate this “bean-counter mentality” that shackles African-American cinema solely to notion of profit that Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film VERTIGO performed sluggishly at the box office and was assessed with mixed critical reviews at the time of its release. Over time, VERTIGO was rediscovered by French critics and audiences around the world and is now highly regarded as a key masterpiece of the cinematic art form.(1)
VERTIGO just recently knocked Orson Welles’ 1941 film CITIZEN KANE off the top spot as British magazine Sight & Sound’s 100 greatest films. Moreover, even Welles’ CITIZEN KANE was a commercial flop at the time of its release, but again it is still hailed as a masterpiece filled with visual, editorial and narrative innovations that have all been absorbed nearly to the point of invisibility within our conceptualization of modern commercial filmmaking.
Yet,” because many African-Americans, both filmmakers and audiences, believe that filmmaking is solely a commercial enterprise. The artistic aspect of filmmaking is deliberately suppressed and/or disbelieved. Too many of our films lack innovation, originality and diversity because we have become slaves to profit and not the artisans of purpose and prestige. We have effectively created by default a slave cinema that is solely and exclusively concerned with the short term bottom line profit and marketability of a film with little to no consideration for the vision, originality, purpose, innovation or long term profitability of a work.” (Slave Cinema, pg. 22)
To debunk the “bean-counter” mentality that shackles African-American filmmaking we should begin by concentrating on three significant points that center on the notion of “box-office” profits and the cultural impact of cinematic prestige.
1a) The first, second and third weekend box office gross numbers of any film are not “net profit” numbers and are in no way reflective of the actual profitability of any film.
1b) The total reported (domestic and foreign) box office grosses of any film after its theatrical run are not reflective of the actual “net profits” of any film.
2) Not all narrative films (domestic or foreign) are made to make money; some films are made for prestige and cultural dominance on the world screen.
3) Would you dare make a film, knowing that there would be no way you would ever receive a dime of profit from it?
Regarding the first point (a & b), one of the most simple distinctions of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles that is taught in first year business school classes is that GROSS PROFITS are not NET PROFITS; which is to say that the gross box office numbers of any particular film that are reported during the opening three weekends of a film’s theatrical run are in no way reflective of the actual net profits of a film. In fact, these first, second and third weekend box office numbers are related only to the popularity of a specified film. And popularity should never be confused with profitability in the entertainment business.
Going further, even the cumulative box office gross totals reported on websites like imdb, boxofficemojo and Variety for any film since its release do not reveal to us the actual net profitability of a film because these enormous sums (like 425 million dollars domestically for a film like THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) have not been audited for negative costs, distribution fees, gross profit participant percentages, licensing and merchandising rights and any and all other overhead costs and interest fees many studios continually charge for a film over time.(2)
Indeed, short of invoking the Freedom of Information Act for SEC and IRS records, the total net profit a single film actually makes might be something we can never know since the many individual participant contracts attached as percentages of the gross profit are negotiated as private binding agreements with non-disclosure clauses built into what is called their “boiler plate” otherwise known as their contractual default rules.
Moreover, each studio has a panoply of creative accounting practices and “ghost” fees that authors Pierce O’Donnell and Dennis McDougal have described as,” GAP accounting,” where,” revenues rarely bridged the gap between costs and profits.”(3)
As I have elsewhere detailed, Hollywood studios are operating on a two-tiered profit making model.(4) The first tier is the theatrical release of a film which over time (usually but not exclusively) box office revenue must be gradually shared with exhibitors, gross participants, and other off-the-tops. The second tier is a constant revenue stream brought in through ancillary outlets from home video, web streaming, television broadcasts on networks owned or co-owned by the studios and the like. The constant revenue stream generated from our monthly “data” fees (cable, cellular, satellite, internet, etc) is based on the value of the catalog or library of films each studio possesses that are streamed on demand or by schedule.
In short, what I am asserting is that both the weekend box office grosses and cumulative box office grosses of any film are industry managed “deceptions” that feed into the notion of filmmaking as a “soulless” money making machine and perpetuates the shackling of African-American cinema to a bottom line that is in no way fixed or terminated after a film’s theatrical run.
Most importantly, we cannot trust the box office grosses of African-American films as an indicator of the popularity of a film because of the rampant and detrimental effects of domestic bootlegging (movie piracy). The fact that the recent remake of SPARKLE underperformed at the box office during its opening weekend may not be a consequence of the dramatic quality or marketability of the film, but instead could be caused by the popularity of the film on the bootleg market.(5)
As African-American filmmakers, we are being “hoodwinked” by faulty box office grosses that have been skewed by pre-theatrical release bootlegging into believing that our stories are neither popular nor marketable and as a consequence our ambitions are tamed and shackled to the all mighty dollar bill while we are forced to watch the ambitions of others soar –unfettered- upon the world screen.
This is not to say that the Hollywood studios don’t make money, but that perhaps making a blockbuster motion picture is more an effort to hide money; that is to hide profits from government over-taxation and from certain participants that the studio has deemed unworthy of sharing with in fairness.
The creation and management of such financial “deceptions” constitute an exact and sobering measure of a studio’s power and global influence.
Regarding the second point, that not all narrative films are made to make money and that some films are made for prestige and cultural dominance on the world screen, I’ll turn our attention to the words of author and corporate entertainment lawyer, Schuyler M. Moore who emphatically declares in his book, THE BIZ: the basic business, legal and financial aspects of the film industry 2nd Edition that,” Most films lose money…The saving grace in the film industry is that when the rare blockbuster occurs, it can make up for the losses on a lot of other films.”(6)
But what of those films that lose money? Some films are made not with the expressed intention of becoming blockbusters, but instead to enhance a studio’s reputation (with awards foreign and domestic) and to secure a certain cultural prestige that is racially coded by the performers or the producers upon the world screen. This assertion might help to explain the importing to American movie theaters of the French film,” INTOUCHABLES” with its sentimental story of the friendship between a French-African male servant and his wheelchair bound white employer as opposed to not importing the raunchy French comedy,” PORN IN THE HOOD,” with its raw story of urban males of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds attempting to get into the pornography business.(7)
An American remake of INTOUCHABLES is already in the works because the sentimentality of the film spreads a message of pacified racial hierarchy and tolerance that those in power on either side of the Atlantic want to perpetuate- no matter what the box office risk or the actual social reality at hand.(8) Some of us may not know that the American film THE HELP was re-titled,” La Couleur Des Sentiments“ when it was released in France last year. It is a title that when translated [The color of feelings] highlights the sentimentality of the work while concealing the notion of African-American servitude and white racial dominance.
It could be that many African-American films are denied access to foreign markets, not because there isn’t an audience for such films, but instead because films written and directed by African-Americans do not maintain that certain genteel sentimentality and racial hierarchy (whites over blacks) that those in power on either side of the Atlantic want to endorse and perpetuate.
A collateral affect of the segregation of African-American films from foreign markets and the segregation of foreign films with diverse racial casts from American markets is that it maintains the illusion of White cultural and class dominance in the minds of people of color. Whether we admit it or not, some of us black folk here in America are still shocked when we see people of color in other countries speaking their own native language; that there are black people of every hue in diverse foreign countries suffering many racial and class circumstances similar to our own is a shock not unlike the shock Malcolm X experienced during his trip to Mecca in 1964.(9)
We are being deliberately kept apart from our international brethren to support the supremacy of whiteness on the world screen.
The very notion of making a film that you know you will not make a dime in profit from, which is my third point, is usually categorized as a “passion” project. White filmmakers as either internationally recognized auteurs or maverick visionaries make these kinds of films every year. (eg. Terence Malick, David Cronenberg or Lars Von Trier) And they sometimes make these films with the willing participation of A-list actors who often opt to take little to no actor’s fees or gross participation profits in exchange for the honor of working with the acknowledged White cinematic genius or maverick visionary.
The fact of the matter is that when Whites have an interest in pursuing what is called a “passion” project, otherwise called a film without blockbuster intentions, they have a greater chance of gaining production funds, distribution and prestige through awards, than when African-Americans attempt to pursue a “passion” project. The extraordinary length of time and stalled efforts of Danny Glover’s project on Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Overture, Don Cheadle’s project on jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, Spike Lee’s long held vision on baseball great Jackie Robinson, attests to the separate and unequal “Jim Crow” status African-Americans are forced to endure within the American Entertainment Industry.
What the combination of the “if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense” ethos, the denial of access to foreign markets to African-American filmmakers and the unmitigated bootlegging of African-American films has created is a curious circumstance of “Black blackfaced minstrelsy” regarding current, potential and future African-American films. Specifically, it is a kind of blackfaced minstrelsy where African-American filmmakers and actors must create and perform a narrow and limited conception of blackness (short of applying burnt cork to the face) that appeals to our own stereotyped and limited illusions of ourselves for profit.(10)
Minstrelsy is minstrelsy whether a black man is painting his face or wearing a dress and a wig to perform a black character of limited perception, ambition and intelligence for the amusement of ourselves or others for profit.
Those passion projects that attempt to reveal aspects that are beyond our own (or white folks) limited and narrow concepts about African-Americans are nearly impossible to produce or distribute because there is a lack of cultural prestige (foreign or domestic) associated with these potential African-American films. Although Behn Zietlin’s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD might seem to contradict this assertion, particularly since the film has been admired as a potential Oscar contender, we must keep in mind that the maverick visionary behind this African-American film is of Jewish descent.
This is an ironic circumstance that begs the questions: Does the race and ethnicity of Behn Zietlin afford him a broader, less stereotypical and ambitious cinematic perspective on African-Americans than we ourselves possess? Are we standing too close to the mirror to see all of the many diverse facets of ourselves and our culture because we are blinded by the vanity of making films solely to get rich and famous?
One thing we can be most certain about is that no portion of the impressive 91 million dollar box office gross of THINK LIKE A MAN (the closest thing to an African-American blockbuster film that we have in recent years) will be used to make up for the losses on a lot of other African-American films because 1) the studios aren’t green lighting any ambitious, risky or challenging African-American films that they will lose money on; 2) those known maverick or visionary African-American filmmakers have been abandoned to struggle in obscurity and financial frustration and 3) those in control of the industry jealously guard the prestige of the world screen (foreign and domestic) for films made by whites that adhere to white dominated racial hierarchies and class privileges.
So returning to where we began, film is an art form and a business, yet what keeps it an art form is the fact that some films are made not solely to make money and other films are made for the sole purpose of making money. Of course we want our films to be successful, but how is that success to be measured? There has to be a balance, even if sometimes that balance is artificially created and maintained; there has to be a balance because most films don’t make money at all and only a few blockbusters actually turn what can be definitively called a net profit several years after their initial theatrical release.
Yet if visionary, ambitious and challenging African-American filmmakers cannot attain financing, are denied access to foreign markets or wide domestic distribution, nor multi-million dollar marketing campaigns, have their works bootlegged and are not supported by African-American film festivals, critics or African-American controlled cable channels- we are then collectively bereft of contemporary ideals and consistent artistic achievements to aspire towards.
We’ve become slaves to profit, performing any manner of Black blackfaced minstrelsy that we believe will make a profit whether we have to wear a dress and a wig to do it or remake classic black films with half of the heart and artistry that made such films classics in the first place.
The most important step in turning away from these dismal circumstances in my opinion is that we have to come together to debunk the bean counter mentality that shackles African-American films and filmmakers solely to the domestic box office with limited representations of African-American culture. Remember that this is a domestic box office itself that has been corrupted by rampant external bootlegging so we don’t have the luxury of using first, second or third weekend box office gross numbers as a means of gauging the popularity or the quality of a film.
The “get rich” model of African-American independent filmmaking, where you make an indie film and pray to get picked up for domestic distribution by a major studio is outdated and counterproductive. As I have tried to suggest here, the way the studios make their money is far more sophisticated and long term than that type of shortsighted sharecropper’s dream has ever been.
The tentative and staggered distribution of independent black films like DuVernay’s MIDDLE OF NOWHERE (2012) and Dosunmu’s RESTLESS CITY (2012) reveals to us that even if it’s not all about money, the greatest task at hand for African-American filmmakers is building the means through which our films can be seen on the world screen. If the alternative to this goal is the Black blackfaced minstrelsy of a Black man in a wig and a dress or remaking classics, then we should consider that the films that don’t make dollars are the ones that might make the most sense under these circumstances today.
(1) Pgs. 39, 121 in HITCHCOCK: The Making of a Reputation by Robert E. Kapsis, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992
(2) All box office gross numbers are from boxoffice.mojo. com, note that the box office gross figures are subject to change.
(3) Pg. 351, FATAL SUBSTRACTION: The Inside Story of Buchwald v. Paramount by Pierce O’Donnell and Dennis McDougal, New York: DoubleDay, 1996.
(4) The Shopkeeper’s Till and The Devil’s Pie: Notes for a Revolution in African-American Filmmaking (part 3). http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/the-shopkeepers-till-the-devils-pie-notes-for-a-revolution-in-african-american-filmmaking-part-3
(5) SPARKLE (2012) opened to 12.5 million dollars gross box office on its first weekend of release on 8/17/12. See also: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/bootlegging-and-the-plot-against-african-american-film
(6) Pgs. 11-12, THE BIZ: The Basic Business, Legal and Financial Aspects of the Film Industry 2nd Edition by Schuyler M. Moore, Los Angeles: Silman-James, 2002.
(7) See the Shadow and Act article,” Irreverent French Comedy ‘Porn In The Hood’ Hits French Theatres This Week by Tambay A. Obenson, July 12, 2012. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/french-comedy-porn-in-the-hood-hits-french-cinemas-this-week
(8) See the Shadow and Act article,” Harvey Weinstein talks ‘Intouchables’ remake; Leaning towards casting Latino in Omar Sy’s role, by Tambay A. Obenson, July 14, 2012. http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/harvey-weinstein-talks-the-intouchables-remake-says-they-may-cast-latino-in-omar-sys-role
(9) As author Manning Marable notes regarding the epiphany in the Hajj,” Malcolm candidly admitted that his “racial philosophy” had been altered after all he had seen- “thousands of people of different races and colors who treated me as a human being.” Pg. 319, MALCOLM X: A Life of Reinvention, New York: Viking, 2011.
(10) For an enriching discussion of Black blackfaced minstrelsy see pages 144-163, FORGERIES OF MEMORY & MEANING: Blacks & Regimes of Race in American Theater & Film Before World War II by Cedric J. Robinson, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 2007.
Andre Seewood is the author of SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film. Pick up a copy of the book via Amazon.com HERE.