Last week, theater chains threw a hissy fit over the announcement of a deal between the Weinstein Company, IMAX Theaters and Netflix to produce a sequel to the 2000 hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and release the film simultaneously on the largest screens available in the world (IMAX) and the smallest (Netflix). Within moments, three of the nation’s biggest theater chains retaliated to the news by saying they would refuse to screen the film in their multiplexes and boycott any similar measures by content creators and digital distributors.
The panic is understandable: studios and theaters have seen their revenues nosedive, with ticket sales reaching an all-time low this past summer. But as they grapple to find ways to sell more tickets and popcorn, are these titans ignoring the only group — urban minorities — whose presence is actually increasing at the multiplex?
Blacks and Latinos collectively make up the largest moviegoing audience in the country, a report by the MPAA published this past April revealed, buying nearly 50% of all tickets sold. The number of African-American moviegoers in particular spiked in 2013, up 13% from the year before. The reason for this, the MPAA concluded, is an increase in Black films at the box office.
In the past 12 months alone, The Best Man Holiday, Ride Along, About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, No Good Deed, the Spanish language comedy Instructions Not Included and The Equalizer have all debuted at the top of the box office. 12 Years a Slave was the Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards. Kevin Hart has become as bankable a star as Jennifer Aniston.
Despite the reliable success of Black films at the box office, actors of color continue to be marginalized in mainstream films. The thought of a Black James Bond is still met with polite laughter and a look at the cast of the upcoming Biblical drama Exodus, a film which should obviously target Black and Latino audiences, is proof of Hollywood’s tone deaf attitude toward diversity. The numbers paint an even more dismal picture than the anecdotes: In the early 2000s, Blacks played 15% of roles in film and TV. Today, it has fallen to 13%, according to SAG. And Black directors make up only 4% of the DGA.
If studios continue to ignore or only give crumbs to Black and Latino audiences, Netflix might be ready to welcome them with open arms — and wallets. For independent filmmakers and stars with strong followings, a company like Netflix, which also announced last week that it would produce and exclusively distribute four new comedies starring Adam Sandler, could be more enticing than begging a movie studio for distribution. As media analyst Rich Greenfield tells Daily Variety, “If talent wants to be on Netflix, and the theaters don’t want to show it — too bad for the theaters.”
With the domestic box office in a downward spiral and white audiences turning in droves to premium cable and digital platforms for their entertainment, why does it continue to be an uphill battle to get studios to put money behind content aimed at proven ticket-buyers — Blacks and Latinos? Furthermore, why are so-called mainstream films so resistant to diversifying their casts, the “token Black friend” aside, with actors of color?
The answer is incomprehensible, but the future is clear: studios and theater chains need to wake up before companies like Netflix, who have proven to be ahead of the curve, seize the opportunity they refuse to.
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