‘Sorry To Bother You’ And The Overseas Distribution Dilemma

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Image Courtesy of Hollywood Reporter

Whitlock: So I know we kind of talked about this a couple of weeks ago, but in between all of my summer travel and crazy day job transition I got to see two movies that focus on the stories and lives of non-white protagonists – Sorry To Bother You and Crazy Rich Asians. They’re wildly different in scope, tone, and focus, but I thought it was really satisfying to see these perspectives told on screen in a way that said “Hey, we have interesting stories to tell that are worth your $16.50 [well, those are average NYC ticket prices]. I think you get CRA across the pond sometime this autumn, but not really sure when you’ll get to see Sorry To Bother You…any release dates for you yet?

Pope: They wised up and bumped CRA up to September (it comes out today), but Sorry to Bother You has had some difficulties. But the breaking news is… (drum roll) it looks as though Universal has picked it up in the UK for distribution later this month:

That’s a big relief, because as recently as last month Riley was stressing the difficulties he was facing:

Now, there was some talk that Black Panther would help put an end to that attitude. Was that naive?

Whitlock:  Yes —- I mean, Marvel released Black Panther in February, which was supposed to coincide with Black History Month (eye roll), but I don’t know how much I buy that – for one, very few large corporate entities (outside of McDonald’s) have ever cared to use Black History Month as a marketing tool, and secondly, February release dates are usually afterthoughts in the grand scheme of box office planning (other non-summer blockbuster films in the MCU have been released in May/June or November). I Marvel got extremely lucky with Black Panther, and perhaps they had some idea via market studies and test screenings that it would do well, but I don’t think they were expecting the Iron Man or Avengers-level of success they achieved with it. And I think the overseas momentum had a lot to do with the curiosity surrounding that unexpected success…

But back to the overall question: no, Black Panther’s success likely won’t change anything because the cynic in me (who pops up a lot, BTW) still thinks that studios see its success as an exception rather than a possible rule. This has been a problem for movies with mostly or all POC casts/characters since the inception of the movie industry, so it’s hard to think that one example would break that way of thinking. It’s hard enough getting these stories sold in the US, because of the “lost in translation” issues, i.e., seeing POC-led stories as only appealing to a niche market and not to a broader population.

Speaking of marketing, what’s your perspective on how Black Panther was marketed in the UK? I know it came out the same week, but not sure whether there was a difference in marketing based on the international audience.

Pope: So far as I could see, not much difference… but then again, so much marketing these days is online, and then on top of that you have the press kits they circulate which are standardised. I imagine there are differences in emphasis in TV appearances and so on, but generally speaking if you’re in the Anglosphere you get the same sell for the MCU.

There might be more variation when it comes to Spike Lee. BlacKkKlansman did get distribution here, and opened reasonably strongly for a film that size. They advertised it as a Spike Lee joint, but I got the impression that the grabby concept and Adam Driver were driving sales more than anything. Lee gave a Q&A at the BFI, but outside of cinephiles I wonder if the guy on the street really recognised him here. Presumably that’s not the case in the US – or at least certainly not in New York!

Whitlock:  He did a Q&A here also, at BAM (very close to his studio in Brooklyn, so old stomping grounds). I think a l people older than 30 still recognize him, but you’d be surprised at how many “new” New Yorkers probably don’t even know about Spike or his work (Lola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It is basically me in my 20s). BlacKkKlansman opened strongly here (on the coasts, at least) but I agree with you – I think the themes in the movie feel timely to people and there’s some “fantasy’ attached there within a true story.

But also: the story in BlacKkKlansman is truly one of a kind, and I think that’s the key to these movies – Hollywood and consumers enjoy stories about exceptional POC. It has to be a) in the context of historical adversity, like Twelve Years a Slave and every other slave movie that I’m emotionally tired of watching or b) the protagonists and surrounding characters have to be (to quote Daft Punk) harder, better, faster, stronger than everyone else.

To me, Black Panther — and also Crazy Rich Asians — are examples of B. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVED both movies and thought they were a lot of fun and deserve their success. And I love the escapism I found in the respective opulence. But I feel like these stories are doing really well because they’re about POC who exist on a different realm than the common folk. People of black African descent and people of East Asian descent feel excited about seeing themselves racially represented in film, but there’s also an element of exoticism entertainment attached (probably twofold for white people). And on a deeper level, this parallels the experience a lot of POC feel in the real world about having to be “twice as good” as everyone else or be seen as an object of exotic desire to be regarded as worthy of attention [that is a whole ‘nother post.]

These seem to be the stories that white audiences want to see (I haven’t polled all white moviegoers, but we see where the dollars go). I don’t think that films about “everyday” people do as well in the mainstream – at best, they are curious critical darlings that get some festival buzz and then fall off the radar. And in survival of the fittest fashion, we get these box office smash “exceptions” that have to meet the criteria I mentioned above. Other films about the lives of POC don’t have the luxury of failing patterns if they want studio resources, and so they don’t get made – or if they do get made, they don’t get big studio support?

So what it is down to seems to me like a chicken/egg scenario. But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Do we wait for big studios to become more inclusive through regime change, or is it on filmmakers, critics, etc. to try and change awareness in audiences? Or is it too related to systemic society to even begin tackling?

Pope: I feel like it’s all of the above, for sure. The big box office hits these days seem to be the ones that allow people to live out their fantasies on screen. But society as a whole – but white society in particular – sometimes seems so concerned with ‘othering’ that it probably limits people’s ability to identify with folks that don’t look like them, which in turn dampens film box office. So long as people are seeking out happy-ending fantasies starring folks that look like them, perhaps studios will figure white folks are the buggest slice of the pie, and just fight over that. So maybe the real long-term solution to film diversity (assuming white people don’t snap out of it) is for racial demographics in the US to shift, and America to become a minority majority state.

As for the studios, you could say that they ‘follow the green’ – but I remember the surge in black film in the early 90s, following Do The Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood. For a while, things looked good, and a new strand in film opened up… only to fade away in an instant as soon as Dead Presidents had lacklustre results. Some of those films made good money, but studios lost interest anyway. So I’m not sure I would trust studio economics. They do seem strangely able to leave good money on the table, and rationalise it later.

Perhaps it really does come down to the audiences, to vote with their wallets and promote good films to each other. It could be that genre films are going to be the easier sell. With heartfelt slice-of-life dramas I think audiences subconsciously groan, and think “I’m going to have to empathise with someone whose life situation might be different to mine?”. Genre films circumvent that. You can implicitly sell the work with more emphasis on plot and thrills, and less on detailed character work, so the empathy questions is pushed aside. Within that you can treat race relatively superficially, as in the Bad Boys movies (which were able to use a certain view of blackness to help sell a stock crime story script originally written for Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz), or you can use that work as a trojan horse, to smuggle in all kinds of thematic concerns – as with Get Out and Black Panther.

As important as all of this is in the US, I think it’s an even bigger test for international audiences. How open are they to hearing about people’s lives that vary from their own, even as a backdrop and context to genre stories? At the moment it does feel like a lot of people just want to live in their bubbles. But that’s a much broader issue about life in the 2010s!

Whitlock:  I’m glad you mentioned the success of Get Out –  I actually think that, rather than “sneaking in” a theme, it was one of the few successful films in recent memory that dealt with a very specific black issue in a satirical manner that was effective,  interest-piquing, and in-your-face – and there’s no way it could’ve been made with a white person as protagonist. That’s so rare that I wonder if that success relied heavily on Jordan Peele’s specific artistic talent. (At the same time, I also think Sorry is very specific to Boots Riley’s POV and is a really good movie! So I guess it was down to luck.)

But I digress — I hope that focus on genre films don’t choke out the Sorry To Bother You‘s in a world where studios and producers are now considering how well a film’s premise will do with international audiences. Perhaps small distributors overseas should really be picking up on these films like Sorry and running with them – I could be wrong, but I feel that there’s a reliable market of cinephiles in major cities who would see these in arthouse cinemas and the like, just as there are in major cities Stateside for foreign films that wouldn’t otherwise be shown in, say, the AMC Times Square.

But in general, I think you’re right about genre films being the way to go. I think they tend to be the easiest to market, and although it’s problematic to have to place the emphasis on the white costars when promoting overseas (remember Twelve Years a Slave Postergate?) sometimes the “bait and switch” is a studio’s best way to get stories in front of people.

Ironically, maybe Boots Riley’s overseas distributors will end up marketing his film as “a new film featuring the stars of Thor: Ragnarok, Call Me By Your Name, Lethal Weapon, & The Expendables.”

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