After premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and earning director Justin Simien the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Dear White People enjoyed universal acclaim throughout last year. Dear White People showed the racial relations between white and Black students at a prestigious and prominently white school. The film made $4.4 million during its domestic run.
The key words are domestic run: despite its theatrical release in the U.S., Dear White People has not received a formal release overseas. The movie has not been seen outside of a few film festivals across the pond, and as a result, The New Black Film Collective has started a petition to allow the showing of Dear White People in theaters.
The New Black Film Collective is a network of film exhibitors and programmers in the United Kingdom. Despite not receiving support from the British Film Institute, the group cobbled together enough money for a limited engagement during July. The traditional notion is that films with Black leads do not perform well overseas. As revealed in those infamous leaked e-mails from Sony Pictures, there was concern about Denzel Washington’s star power not being enough to make The Equalizer profitable overseas.
Come on, this is Denzel Washington!
Anyway, The Equalizer grossed $192 million, $90 million of which came from the foreign box office. These two films are on different economic scales, but with the film industry leaning more on international box office than domestic appeal, it comes down to dollars and cents, and race-driven films get shortchanged. Dear White People’s problem with finding distribution in the U.K. has more to do with the subject of race than casting.
Race-driven films are often profitable at home but, from a big-studio standpoint, struggle overseas. Fruitvale Station grossed $17.4 million worldwide, but “only” $1 million came from the global box office. Selma was more successful, but still “only” brought in $14 million from other territories. More than ever, the movie industry is boom or bust; if a movie makes less than a billion dollars, then it’s deemed a disappointment. After marketing, distributing and bonuses, there isn’t a lot left for the exhibitors.
For this reason alone, if the audience shows a desire to see a certain film, exhibitors should show it. There’s money to be made and special screenings are good promotional opportunities. If a movie isn’t given the opportunity to succeed, then it will not. If there’s a willing audience, whether the movie is big or small, it can succeed.