Foreign Markets: Curse of the Black Cast


That white guy must be why this movie made money.

The romantic comedy Think Like a Man finally knocked The Hunger Games off its perch as America's top-grossing movie last weekend. Yet according to the logic of liberal Hollywood, this movie's a problem because it may not play in foreign markets. 

Think Like a Man, an adaptation of a Steve Harvey book directed by Tim Story and starring Gabrielle Union and Kevin Hart, is a solid financial success, nearly tripling its production budget in its first weekend. But as a movie with a mostly black cast, it's supposedly part of a vanishing species in Hollywood. 

I was fascinated a few months ago when George Lucas noted that he couldn't find investors for his World War II movie Red Tails, because, as he put it, "They don't believe there's any foreign market for [black movies] and that's 60 percent of their profit…I showed it to all of them and they said 'No. We don't know how to market a movie like this.'"

Shortly thereafter, Tyler Perry took up the same theme

Unfortunately, movies starring an all African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct. THAT'S RIGHT, EXTINCT! Ask any executive at a Hollywood Studio why, and most of them will tell you one of two things. The first thing they'll say is that DVD sales have become very soft, so it's hard for a movie with an all black cast to break-even. Secondly they'll say, most movies are now dependent on foreign sales to be successful and most "black" movies don't sell well in foreign markets. So what that means is you will begin to see less and less films that star an all black cast. Isn't that sad in a 2012 America? Somewhere along the way we still haven't realized that we are more alike then [sic] not.

This was of interest because I had heard that same "foreign markets" objection when trying to get producers interested in my own (solid-gold) movie ideas. At the time, I figured the surprisingly overt objection to any suggestion of having major black characters in a movie could be explained by the fact that I am somewhere below the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, and thus nobody has to worry about what they say to me. 

But I understand Lucas and Perry have made a few dollars in the movie business. Some of their films even seem to have been hits you may have heard about. I'd expect that they might get a more welcome response, or at least that the people they're talking to (who almost certainly are their inferiors in terms of show business success) would come up with a more politic way of saying no. 

The no-black-casts rule is strikingly straightforward, to a degree that you would not expect in any other part of the professional world. Here's a recent anecdote from the actor Brian White (who, just so we're all clear before we discuss this any further, is not white!): 

"Dennis Cooper, the writer, director and producer, is a Caucasian man who had some friends," White said. "His friend David was the inspiration for Dr. Z and Dr. Howard—a Harvard-educated doctor that was involved with the film. And Dennis sold this great script to the studios, but he left the character descriptions out.

"When the studios found out the leads were black, they didn't want to make the movie anymore, and Dennis had to go take his own money and his friends' money and make this movie himself and then start the long road to getting a distribution deal."

The argument that it's actually foreigners who don't like black actors is also of long standing. "Unfortunately," said producer Andrew Vajna told the Washington Post in 1998, "there are no black actors today [who] mean anything to the foreign marketplace."

Hollywood's worst nightmare: a black actor who can even make money on a movie that says free market capitalism is good.

It's worth noting that Red Tails did not perform at the box office, and Think Like a Man had a modest production budget of $13 million. And casting is one area where race-conscious hiring actually makes sense, at least in the sense that audiences might not buy Gabourey Sidibe as Marilyn Monroe or Jim Carrey as Idi Amin. 

But investment risk doesn't explain everything. The buppie dating comedy is a proven profitable genre with at least one genuine classic (1997's Booty Call) in its history. These concerns about relatability and culture translation to overseas audiences don't seem to apply when it's a Judd Apatow slacker romance under consideration. 

Nor is Tinseltown consistently opposed to unmarketable pictures. Hollywood thought it was a good idea to spend $15 million on a silent movie. In an otherwise absurd article, SLAVE CINEMA author Andre Seewood notes that lack of demonstrated audience interest in non-linear art films pondering the meaning of life did not prevent producers from gambling $32 million on Terence Malick's Tree of Life. (Amazingly, both Tree and The Artist appear to have made money, thanks mostly to foreign sales.) 

Everybody except Art Buchwald made money on this movie.

The foreign market strikes me as the modern equivalent of the "southern affiliates" who were sure to drop the broadcast if Kirk and Uhura kissed: a prejudice that's true until it's not. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Think Like a Man producer Will Packer acknowledges that international audiences need to be softened up before they can be conquered: 

The next market he wants to conquer is overseas, where African-American films rarely do any business. "It puts a black film at a big disadvantage when the studio bean counters don't see it having any foreign box-office potential. But look at the NBA. They worked the international market to make sure their sport happened overseas. And I'm going to work it too."

Producers are free to do what they want with their own money. And making more streamlined movies for international audiences has been on balance a step in the right direction: In my view, Hollywood movies contain too much talk, too many hipsters, too little momentum, and too many pop culture references. But the foreign box office excuse is aggravating for several reasons:

1) My pitches are surefire hits! 

2) It's a classic case of blaming the benighted attitudes of some third party for what are in fact your own preferences. 

3) The "foreign market" is an abstraction that pretends to describe the majority of people on this planet (including a huge and enthusiastic movie audience in Nigeria). 

4) In progressive Hollywood, the White House Correspondents Association dinner is considered a hot ticket; millions of dollars are being donated to re-elect the most inspiring president in America's history; and people think George Zimmerman should be convicted without a trial. Yet major business decisions get made on the basis of a type of racial discrimination that most Americans would roundly reject (and that I don't think exists – at least openly – in any other industry). 

NEXT: Two and a Half Year Homeland Security Investigation Leads to Raid on Flea Market That Sells Counterfeit Goods

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  1. Maybe it won’t do well in european markets because it’s about thinking like a man.

  2. The foreign market excuse has long seemed to me to be a way to get people to shut up and stop pestering the studios/producers about why they’re mostly making streamlined crap that will make a lot of money, both at home and overseas, including tons of remakes.

    I mean, I get the business reasons, and I can’t fault them for it. But they also don’t seem to want to be called on it. It’s out of their hands, because of the dirty foreigners, see?

    1. It always comes back to Bollywood, doesn’t it?

      Not only is the appetite for American Schlock insatiable, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And, as an added bonus, a good deal of the them evul furners’ work is superior to American Schlock. And Michael Bay.

  3. “So what that means is you will begin to see less and less films that star an all black cast. Isn’t that sad in a 2012 America?”

    Only if you think it is sad that movies that are only box office successes in the US are not considered successful. Otherwise, it is an indictment of foreign tastes.

    1. I’m more concerned about the quality of the movie than the race of the cast. I hate it that the “won’t play overseas” excuse is now used to kill all but the most mindless science fiction movies.

  4. I’m curious to how individual Black actors do overseas? Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Lawrence Fishbourne, Samual L Jackson, Will Smith? All hugely succesful here. Do they not do well overseas?

    1. I looked up the box office for I Am Legend, a movie that was literally 100 minutes of Will Smith, and it made $256 million domestic and $329 million foreign.

      But I don’t know – is it normal for a big budget movie to make 44% of its gross just in the US and Canada?

      1. Man, that movie was pure shit too.

        1. And a complete bastardization of the book. Just one more in a long list of reasons to hate Will Smith.

          1. Yeah, I remember stting there thinking this is basically a fucking zombie movie, and not a very good one at that, and that’s a pretty low bar right there.

          2. Really? I’m not saying I loved I Am Legend, but I at least found it watchable, largely because of Will Smith.

            Now, if that movie had been 100 minutes of Matt Damon, or Ben Affleck, or Tom Hanks (you heard me, fuck Castaway!) I probably would have hated it.

            That said, I’m not looking forward to Men in Black 3 at all.

            1. I digged it. Will Smith was good for the role, but I thought the storyline was watchable. He has been in some terrible movies. Handcock. Pursuit of Happenis. I Blowbot. None of them were watchable just because he was in it.
              I think maybe Bruce Willis could have been in I Am Legend and it would still be alright.

              1. What? Hancock wasn’t that bad and Pursuit of Happyness was a damned good movie. Yeah, I Robot was total bilge though.

            2. You said it. Goddam, I can’t stand Tom Hanks.

          3. Never expect a movie to be a book. Or a video game. Never expect a video game to be a movie. If you like the one thing, go with it. Stories get adapted over and over. Don’t ever think a television show will be as good as the movie it was spun off from. *Hurlminator*

          4. I Am Legend was terrible, but not because Smith didn’t try to make it compelling. It was just lethargic and not at all thoughtful like good sci-fi should be.

            1. It had so much more potential. The opening scene hunting big game downtown NY from the mustang was great.

        2. I liked it.

          And I like Will Smith.

          You can all fuck off and die in a fire! Racists!

      2. I Am Legend, I, Robot and even Wild, Wild West all sucked not because of Will Smith, but because they weren’t I Am Legend, I, Robot and Wild, Wild West.

        They were all fairly enjoyable movies that used the names of some extremely recognisable properties without being those properties. And it was that, rather than real badness, that got most people annoyed.

    2. I’m sure they do fine. It seems that the concept of an all black cast might seem strange to foreigners, which is an acceptable critique because in most settings it is realistic to have at least a few white guys, unless the movie is about pre colonial Africa.

      You would think a movie about Pacific World War Two would have some white guys and japs. I haven’t seen it yet, but I could see how the all black thing might cut out some important parts of the real story.

      1. The military was segregated then. The real story of the Tuskegee Airmen was all black.

        1. That’s not the full picture. Of course the segregated military put some white officers “in charge” of them. The units were segregated, not all contact all the time.

    3. Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing film star of all time.

      1. He motherfuckin deserves it.

        1. I think “A Time to Kill” was the movie that he really first stood out as a phenomenal actor to me.

          1. I own that movie and watch it when I’m pissed off.

            “Yes they deserved to die and I hope they rot in hell”

            1. You must not get pissed off very often. It’s “burn,” not “rot.”

      2. How much of that is his three lines in each of the Star Wars prequels?

        1. Throw in Jurassic Park and the four movies probably make up 90% of his gross.

        1. Jesus, dude! Mark that shit NSFW or something – give a guy a warning he is about to be exposed to Quentin Tarentino. That guys’ sucking clearly crosses the line between pornography and obscenity.

  5. I wonder if this is why so many black rappers become actors. The “foreigners” already know them for their music and are therefore more receptive to a “black” movie starring one of them.

  6. Also wondering if this mainly applies to comedies. There are certainly a lot of black comedies that most white people in the US do not go see unless it’s Eddy Murphy or Will Smith.

    1. You mean films like Jumping the Broom?

      1. Probably:) I had never even heard of that. I’m not all that into current pop culture anyways though.

    2. Speaking of which, if you have not seen Death at a Funeral you are missing some awesome comedy.

      1. I’ll check it out.

    3. I see all of those comedies. I can’t think of any immediately that have a 100% black cast.

      1. Yeah, there’s always at least the token white person in those comedies, playing some sort of stereotypical role. It’s sort of touching, in a way.

    4. It’s a shame that none of you honkees can quote How High like I can. That always gets me out of getting beaten up by brothers.

    5. Just watch Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood and you’ve got all the 80s/90s stuff covered.

      1. Shaft, Wiz, Friday, Juice, Roots.

    6. There are certainly a lot of black comedies that most white people in the US do not go see unless it’s Eddy Murphy or Will Smith.

      Friday is quite possibly one of the finest cinematic achievements in the comedy genre.

      1. Ed and His Dead Mother is one of my favorite black comedies.

    7. I can believe this. There are some fine black comedians (Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Kat Williams), but many black comedians beloved by the black community fall flat with the white community – and an all-black comedy is generally not funny to whites.

    8. I think South Park re:Tyler Perry is all that needs to be said.

  7. If this really is true of Europeans, I really wonder why. Aren’t they curious about people who are different from themselves?

    1. The safest bet for movie makers, I would guess, is to make films they feel would be accessible to the widest possible group of probable ticket/DVD buyers. It seems to me just as likely a business decision as some level of racism, but what do I know? I’m not Hollywood and Europeans are generally a mystery to me.

    2. Maybe it’s the “dirty Asians”.

    3. Well LePen did pull 18% of the French presidential vote.

  8. Your comment contains a word that is too long (50 characters).

    1. Yeah, I just got the marked as spam one.

      1. Ah, for the tame glitch-free days before threaded comment and registration.

        1. Tame? You need to review those 1000+ comment clusterfuck threads. I agree about threaded, however.



  9. I wonder why black casts aren’t more popular in Asia.

    1. The swearing?

      1. I fell sorry for you mother.

      2. Idi Amin?

  10. Must be true, just as Bollywood films don’t play well here. I mean there’s only six Bollywood channels on Comcast…

  11. Pretty sure France has a government-mandated limit on US-made movies, since they, well, aren’t French. No need for that in the US since most French movies tend to be soporific.
    And then Red Tails, by all accounts, sucked. Could have been good, and there’s a story to tell there, but Lucas seems to have told a bed-time story.

    1. About the only good thing I can think of regarding French cinema right now is that they’re doing some really good stuff in horror over the last few years. Other than that, pure shite.

        1. The French did a remake of Mad Love? (The Colin Clive version, not the Drew Barrymore movie.)

          Granted, even Mad Love wasn’t original, having been a remake of a silent.

      1. If you want to see a disturbing movie, Martyrs is it.

        1. Holy f*ck is it ever.


  12. Baseball NERDS:
    why does http://www.mlb.com always switch to mlb.mlb.com? Is that redundancy required or even helpful?

    1. It’s to avoid confusion with their sister site, nfl.mlb.com. You know, the place you go to find out Tom Brady’s career OPS+.

      You’re right though, mlb.mlb.com looks fucking stupid. It’s much worse than espn.com redirecting to espn.go.com.

  13. It’s a fairly nonsensical idea really. I don’t know why most of the rest of the world would have any preference between white leads and black leads.

    Seems to me this is a bit of a chicken and egg problem; everyone avoids casting black actors for the kind of movie that will do well in foreign markets for fear of losing money, then take the fact that its white actors who bring in the drachmas as proof that they should avoid black actors.

    It also provides an excellent excuse for the makes of fairly terrible movies like Lucas and Perry to explain why executives aren’t interesting in marketing their crappy movies.

    1. Its not black actors, or black lead actors. Its the all black or majority black cast that apparently doesn’t do well outside North America.

      1. Is your name a reference to the shirts Beavis and Butt-Head wear when they’re not wearing AC DC and Metallica?

        Back on topic, here is a list of high-grossing movies ranked by what percentage they made in North America.

        The Blind Side and The Help both made over 80% of their gross domestically. Then again, so did Ghostbusters.

        1. My attorney has informed me that I have nothing to do with Beavis and Butt-Head.

          There are some utterly terrible movies on that list.

        2. Ghostbusters to Americans is like Jerry Lewis to the French. I don’t get the appeal of either. It was a very unfunny movie.

          1. Yes it’s true. This man has no dick.

            1. Just don’t tell him about the Twinkie.

          2. It seems the rest of the world doesn’t like sarcasm as much as Americans do and most of that movie was sarcasm.

  14. This is pretty much the same reason Hollywood uses to not make any pro-Christian or pro-Military movies, despite the success of Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie or the recent Act of Valor, which pretty much did better than all the anti-Military movies Hollywood churned out combined…

    1. Christian movies suck balls. There’s tons of good war movies.

      1. We Were Soldiers
        Apocoplyse Now
        A bridge Too Far
        Guns of Navarone

        1. Seargent York.

          1. The Longest Day
            Das Boot

      2. You can make movies that have good values, and are ostensibly Christian. At least, Hollywod easily did back in the golden age with things like The Bishop’s Wife or even Keys of the Kingdom.

        The problem is that nowadays, “pro-Christian” generally seems to mean “pro-Evangelical/fundie”.

        1. Does 300 count as pro-Christian? The Spartans were killing Persians before killing Persians became such a crusade.

  15. actually most of them are do very well overseas, for example many of the friends aroud me think will smith is a ver good actor, the races do not matter so much any more. the movie itself matters

    1. “You people..” WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN, “You people”?!?!?

      Take your racist summer dress havin’, Will Smith is a ver good actor thinkin’ ass back to Romania.

      1. Hey! Bucharest is full of nice people!

        1. Can’t you prescribe yourself something to sleep?

          Jeezus, if I had a pad I’d be blissfully snoozin’ right now. Guess that’s why I ain’t a doctor.

          1. Excessive sleep is highly overrated.

            1. Your body will decide what is excessive/enough though.

              I’ve had varying levels of insomnia since I was a kid and when it’s bad I pass out at random times during the day.

              1. Narcolepsy is not a toy with which to be played.

                1. Oh no, nothing like that. I’ll just be so tired that I’ll be at work and totally fall out in front of the computer, or at home watching teevee. It almost feels like the nod from strong opiates. It is not sleep, but a pleasant half-dream state.

  16. I don’t think it is the all black cast that is the problem, Bollywood films almost never have white actors (except for some dancers) and are popular outside India. The problem is that films like Big Mommma, the one where the black guy dresses up as a woman have a humour that is very specific to America and will not be appreciated by very many foreign viewers.

    1. Exactly. The same reason foreign audiences don’t give a flying fuck about the Tuskegee Airmen. It’s an American-only theme, I can’t even see Canadians giving a shit.

      Stuff like Big Momma means about as much to foreign audiences as any old short with El Brendel means to modern American audiences. There’s certainly an audience for that stuff that can generate a profit, but the big studios are geared for certain minimal profit margins that those movies can’t generate.

  17. Ice Cube finally got Last Friday in production and will probably hit theatres late this year or early next year. He’s been trying to get the movie going since 2007. I didn’t here anything about financing problems thought. The reason for the long delay I heard was getting Chris Tucker to reprise his role from the first movie back in ’95.

  18. Hollywood movies contain too much talk, too many hipsters, too little momentum, and too many pop culture references.

    So it’s like a Hit & Run thread, then.

    1. Only with worse writing.

  19. I don’t remember who it was that said a while back Hollywood was becoming blockbuster-bound, that movies were becoming so expensive to make that the big studios weren’t willing to risk making anything that wasn’t going to attract a huge audience. Which means you are going to get the cinematic equivalent of Cheetos. They look good, they taste great, you want lots of them, but you know you are going to be ashamed of yourself afterward.

    Since Hollywood no longer makes movies but only makes re-makes of movies, nothing ever gets made for the first time. It’s not enough to show that all-black-cast movies might be successful in the foreign market, you have to prove that they already are successful in the foreign markets. Otherwise, you just get a new flavor of Cheetos.

  20. This issue is about as worrying to me as the fact that my local convenience story doesn’t carry diet cream soda.

  21. Looks like they are having fun.


  22. Hollywood puts itself forth as utterly anti-racist. They shoehorn black actors and actresses into inappropriate roles endlessly–just to shove it in the faces of the ‘racists’ that complain(the aforementioned Will Smith movies–minus I,Robot–as an example).

    To suggest that there is anything more than pragmatism going on here is ludicrous.

    Here’s something to consider, America is a melting pot nation, how many others are there/ How many nations are still largely mono-cultural and mono-racial? Here’s a tip–it’s most of the world.

    So maybe, just maybe, Hollywood movies with all black casts aren’t something Asian consumers are beating down the door for….hmmm?

    1. So maybe, just maybe, Hollywood movies with all black casts aren’t something Asian consumers are beating down the door for….hmmm?

      No, that can’t possibly be the case. I’m embarrassed that you even brought it up.

  23. Ugly but true – no pun intended – Hollywood crap is about staring at pretty people. Either hunk waves a gun or babe wears a skirt – or less than that.

    Attractive white people are universally pretty people. There are very few black ‘pretty’ famous people and there are zero ‘pretty’ famous black women unless they’re at least half-white or three generations diluted. Even black folks have that perception. I’ve never seen black men complain about pretty white girls being too overexposed compared to black ones. Only black women complain about that.

    Swap the sexes in that statement and there’s Asians. And that’s in polyglot USA. Look at melting pot Brazil. All the pretty peeps that become famous out of there are at most ‘off’ white at their darkest. The hottest model to come out of Africa past fifteen years is some blonde cupcake from South Africa. Al Sharpton and Co. do not complain about this, they themselves do not seem to mind.

    Anybody who’s been to Japan or the new Chinese mega-cities will see endless media of pretty white people selling them things etc. Not one black person bar a jock in any of it.

    Not one – unless its a joke.

  24. The comedy in is more than solid. Biggest reason I am going to watch this is Kevin Hart, yesterday I watched a comedy sketch with him, hilarious !

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