Higher Learning: Labeling Black Unbankable
This article is part of Higher Learning, a new regular feature at Film Comment in which university scholars share concise essays bringing our readers into the rich and varied conversations occurring in the fields of film and moving-image studies. The following abridged excerpt comes from the book The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry by Maryann Erigha (published by NYU Press). Erigha mobilizes a variety of materials and data to describe the phenomena engendering racial inequality in the production, distribution, and exhibition of popular culture. The below text is abridged from the chapter “Labeling Black Unbankable.”
Taxi (Tim Story, 2004)
The “unbankable” label affects a movie’s marketing strategy. Hollywood executives conceive of small, specific audiences for “Black films” and large, general audiences for “white films” that often go racially unmarked. In turn, Hollywood executives envision raced, segmented audiences and thus heavily market Black movies to Black audiences. What transpires is a self-fulfilling prophecy: raced marketing plans reinforce the perception that Black movies are unbankable to non-Black audiences. Other racial minorities are similarly deemed unbankable compared to white actors and directors. Ironically, the rationale that Black films are unbankable operates against the conventional logics of cultural industries, which normally suggest that it is impossible to predict which cultural products will succeed and which will fail. In contrast, the economic and cultural rationalizations put forth by Hollywood decision-makers suggest that Black films are not expected to succeed or to achieve the level of success of white films.
Marketing efforts are extensive. Hollywood studios regularly employ market-segmentation techniques to categorize movie audiences by race, gender, age, or other categories, to strategize how to reach audiences of particular demographics. For example, Hollywood decision-makers categorize audiences into “females under 25,” “teen boys 12–16,” “African Americans,” or “Hispanics”—though generally whiteness is unmarked and invisible in these categorizations.
In the case of Black-cast movies, there is little attempt to drive public interest from broad audiences. The imagined audience for Black-cast movies in the minds of Hollywood decision-makers is first African Americans and second Latino/as in the United States. Typically, Black-cast movies are marketed to African American audiences on radio or on network, cable, and reality television programs that feature African American hosts or actors. Black-cast movies are also marketed during National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) games. Hollywood insiders shape marketing campaigns around audience demographics. The focus of marketing Black-cast movies is what programs are presumed to be of general interest to African Americans. The programs during which ads run reflect the target demographic.
The imagined audiences for Black-cast films are African Americans and not general audiences of all races. Next, they consider Hispanics as a second demographic to target. Essentially, studio executives envision that these movies would appeal to less than one-third of the U.S. population and suggest that only small pockets of foreign audiences would find them interesting enough to patronize. Following the logic that heavy marketing to African American audiences, if successful, should presumably lead to more African American audiences patronizing Black-cast movies, the on-the-ground campaigns hit major U.S. cities with large Black populations. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the result of millions of dollars’ worth of racially targeted marketing would draw audiences that, by design, overrepresented African Americans. This circuitous logic that Black-cast movies do well in the cities and among the audiences where advertising dollars are focused raises the question: If marketing campaigns were structured differently and targeted elsewhere, for instance, to foreign markets, would patterns of success also change?
Using race and strategically targeting specific racial demographics, Hollywood insiders socially construct audiences for movies. The origin and directive of the marketing campaigns are conveniently forgotten, though it is highly likely that the imagined audience and the racially imbalanced marketing to target those potential viewers shape the actual audience.
Most movies that African Americans direct are Black-cast movies with small budgets. The budget ranges for Black-, multiracial-, and white-cast movies are quite distinct. Nearly all Black-directed Black-cast films have budgets less than $40 million. Generally with a Black cast, directors can make only medium-budget pictures at best. In contrast, more Black-directed movies with multiracial casts fall into the $20 million to $60 million budget range, an indication that if Black directors desire to work on bigger-budget pictures, they must do so apart from making films with Black casts. Meanwhile, movies that are budgeted at or over $100 million have majority-white casts.
Overall, there appears to be a tiered system for movie budgets on the basis of the race of the cast. To direct films with bigger budgets, typically, African Americans have to direct films with few Black characters—with multiracial or white casts—while films with Black casts receive considerably smaller budgets. The economic logic used to justify this racial disparity has to do with perceived audience preferences. Decision-makers insist that Black-cast movies will not perform well overseas and will only perform well domestically among Black audiences and occasionally Latino/a audiences.
As an example, Tim Story’s Black-cast movies received far less financial support compared to his films with multiracial casts. Set in a barbershop on the South Side of Chicago, the Black-cast comedy Barbershop was made on a $12 million production budget yet grossed more than $75 million at the domestic box office—thus grossing more than six times its budget. The film starred the rappers Ice Cube and Eve, the comedian Cedric the Entertainer, and the actors Anthony Anderson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Keith Davis, and Michael Ealy. Story’s Black-cast ensemble romantic comedies Think Like a Man (2012) and Think Like a Man Too (2014) had $12 million and $24 million budgets, respectively. Think Like a Man grossed more than seven times its budget, with over $91 million at the domestic box office, while the sequel grossed well over twice its budget, at more than $65 million at the domestic box office. In contrast, Story’s action comedy Taxi (2004), starring the hip hop entertainer and actor Queen Latifah and the white comedian Jimmy Fallon, was made on a $25 million production budget but grossed only $36 million at the domestic box office. Meanwhile, the multiracial-cast Fantastic Four action films were Story’s biggest budgeted films, at $100 million for the 2005 film and $130 million for the 2007 sequel. Depending on the cast of the film, different budgets are allocated for production.
In this case, Story’s Black-cast films were undervalued compared to his films that had multiracial casts. Some of the disparity, especially with Fantastic Four, is due to the blockbuster superhero genre compared to comedies, which are usually smaller budgeted. However, a relevant question is also why superhero films are rarely all Black. For decision-makers, Black-cast films are devalued compared to white-cast films. Quite possibly, Hollywood decision-makers rationalize that Black audiences will flock to Black-cast movies no matter how much is invested in them, so they opt to make them for less to increase profits. That Black movies are precisely the projects on which African Americans are most likely to work means that they are deeply disadvantaged by the “unbankable” label throughout their careers.
White directors who previously helmed unsuccessful films are not restricted from directing big-budget pictures. Conversely, successful Black-cast movies and directors are often overlooked as exceptions to the rule of unbankability. Unlike white movies and directors, they are not rewarded with a considerable or consistent increase in production values for future projects. The association of Black movies with negative outcomes runs counter to the conventional principles governing market performance of cultural products in creative industries—that performance is unpredictable, “nobody knows” what products will succeed and fail, and “all hits are flukes.” Essentially, the “unbankable” label turns these maxims upside down to say that “everybody knows” Black movies will underperform.
“Unbankable,” thus, remains a racial code that is not used objectively but only as a justification for marginalization of Black directors and films. On the basis of the “unbankable” label, Hollywood is free to legally marginalize Black stories and directors. Blackness is devalued and linked to cultural and economic inferiority, and whiteness is valued and linked to cultural and economic superiority—corroborating the Jim Crow logic that assumes racial difference. Here, the marginalization is couched in economic and cultural logics and thus evades violating the norm of racial equality of the post-civil-rights era. In this new age of explicit racism, race is linked to economics and culture in a manner that is also palatable to neoliberal and neoconservative philosophies governed by the pursuit of profit. Racial hierarchies are maintained and reproduced in a mode that continues to privilege whites atop a racial system of cinematic production.
Read a review of The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry in the March-April issue of Film Comment.
Maryann Erigha is Assistant Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at the University of Georgia. Her book The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry is published by NYU Press.