Steve McQueen Recalls Producers Rejecting ’12 Years a Slave’ Over False Beliefs About Black Films

The Oscar winner hit its DVD sales goal for the entire year in a single week, the director says.
12 YEARS A SLAVE, from left: Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, 2013, ph: Francois Duhamel/TM and Copyright ©Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved./courtesy Everett Collection
"12 Years a Slave"
©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

Steve McQueen is rolling out five new feature films starting this month as part of his “Small Axe” anthology series, but just less then a decade ago it was a fight for him to get one feature made. In an interview with Insider, McQueen recalled how several Hollywood producers pulled out of financing his Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” over claims the film was an “impossible” task since Black films don’t make money overseas. Those producers looked foolish after the slavery drama banked just under $190 million worldwide on a $20 million production budget.

“There were people who pulled out of ’12 Years a Slave’ because they didn’t think it would make any money,” McQueen said, “but the fact of the matter is we made over virtually $150 million outside of the United States, which tells you how hungry people were for that kind of narrative. It made $57 million in the United States box office. We exceeded our DVD sales for the year in one week. That’s when people used to buy DVDs.”

As McQueen has noted in the past, the financial success of “12 Years a Slave” marked a definitive moment in Hollywood where studios realized there was worldwide potential in films led by Black actors. For this reason, McQueen believes “12 Years a Slave” opened the door for films by Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Coogler.

“Just go back and look before ’12 Years a Slave’ and after,” McQueen said. “From a direct result of that ‘Moonlight’ was made and ‘Selma’ was made because it was made by the same producers. And the only reason they were able to make it was because of ’12 Years a Slave’ being a financial hit because they were trying to make those movies for a long time, but they couldn’t until ’12 Years a Slave.'”

In addition to its $187 million worldwide gross, “12 Years a Slave” picked up three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o. The film’s Oscar win for Best Picture was a historic feat as McQueen became the first Black British producer to receive the Academy’s top honor and the first Black British director of a Best Picture winner.

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