By Anita Bennett
HOLLYWOOD — It’s awards season in the entertainment industry and this year there is a wide selection of acclaimed films about the Black experience.
From a musical remake of “The Color Purple” to “American Fiction,” “Origin,” “A Thousand and One,” “Rustin,” and the Netflix documentary “Stamped from the Beginning” — all of these movies were directed by Black filmmakers and all of them tell stories about the Black community.
Some have won over critics groups, while others have picked up awards, but none of them have made a big splash at the box office.
“It’s frustrating. A lot of time, effort and money goes into the creation of this content,” said Gil Robertson, president and co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association.
AAFCA named “American Fiction,” “Origin” and “The Color Purple” among its top 10 films of 2023.
But the accolades don’t always translate into ticket sales.
The day after the Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 23, Nila V. and her family ventured out to the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Crenshaw and XD.
“I just saw ‘Mean Girls,’” Nila, 17, told us.
A frequent moviegoer, the teenager said she would like to see more movies about the “young Black girl experience.”
“Being a dark-skinned girl growing up in the world, I’m perceived as different from other people, because no matter what room I’m looking in, people are always staring at me,” she said.
Nila recently saw “Origin” from director Ava DuVernay, but the teen said she is not interested in watching the reimagined version of “The Color Purple.”
Laqueenna Pierce was at the Cinemark Theater to give someone a ride home, and said she had recently seen “The Color Purple” from producers Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones and Scott Sanders.
Asked her thoughts on the movie musical, she said she wasn’t impressed.
“There were certain things I didn’t like about it,” Pierce said. “I just felt like the kissing part with the two girls was too long and I don’t think it needed all that.”
Since “The Color Purple” arrived in theaters on Christmas Day, the latest adaptation of Alice Walker’s award-winning 1982 novel has earned $62 million at the global box office as of Jan. 29, according to box office tracking company Comscore.
While that may seem like a lot, it’s actually disappointing considering the film’s $90-$100 million production budget, plus millions more that were spent marketing the film.
“I thought the marketing on ‘The Color Purple’ was fantastic,” said Comscore Senior Media Analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Dergarabedian is one of the nation’s leading box office analysts, and said he is mystified by the film’s sluggish ticket sales. He suspects it may have something to do with timing.
“If you have a movie that’s really good, like ‘The Color Purple,’ which by the way — that movie was part of a traffic jam of films that came out [in December]. ‘Wonka’ came out on the 15th of December, and then the following weekend you had three or four more movies open … on the 22nd we had ‘Aquaman,’ ‘Migration,’ ‘Anyone But You’ and ‘The Iron Claw.’
All of those films are hits, to some degree. “Wonka” is the most successful of the group, after bringing in more than $552 million worldwide as of Jan. 29, Comscore reported.
Bad timing may not be the only thing that hobbled “The Color Purple.” The film may have been hurt by negative press after actress Taraji P. Henson said during promotional interviews that she had to fight for higher pay and a driver to take her to and from the set. In another interview, her Oscar-nominated co-star Danielle Brooks said the cast wasn’t initially given catering or their own dressing rooms during rehearsals.
With negative headlines dominating the film’s press tour, some fans may have shied away.
But that doesn’t explain what happened with “American Fiction.”
The satire about a frustrated Black novelist picked up five Oscar nominations, and saw a 65% jump in ticket sales the following weekend.
But even with an Oscars bump, it has only made about $12 million at the box office.
Compare that to “The Holdovers,” an Oscar-nominated indie starring “Billions” actor Paul Giamatti, which has brought in more than $31 million worldwide.
“If Black people want to see diverse stories that spotlight the variety that we all know exists in our lives, they’re going to have to vote with their butts in seats and their pockets,” Robertson said. “They’re going to have to give these films a chance to succeed by going to see them, by supporting them and not waiting until they come out on streaming, bootleg or anything like that.”
“Origin” made history in September as the first movie from a Black female director to compete at the Venice Film Festival.
Based on a best-selling novel by Howard University graduate Isabel Wilkerson, the film explores parallels between racism in the U.S. and racism abroad. The drama opened in a limited number of theaters on Jan. 19, and two weeks later has made a modest $2.5 million.
Dergarabedian said for lower-budget indie films, sometimes winning acclaim is more important than ticket sales.
“The box office bounce is less important in recent years, meaning the theatrical box office from movie theaters is less important than the prestige bounce,” he said.
Indeed, Netflix is known to release its best films in theaters only long enough to qualify for awards. Current film academy rules say for Oscar’s consideration, a movie only has to play “for seven consecutive days” in a movie theater in L.A., New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami or Atlanta.
But other films need to make back the money spent on production and marketing — and that means ticket sales.
“This is very much a business,” Robertson said.
Black moviegoers frequently say they want to see films that reflect their lived experiences, and don’t center on trauma like slavery or inner-city violence. But lately it seems, that’s just lip-service.
“Audiences have been screaming that they want better movies for decades,” said Shawn Edwards, executive producer of the Critics Choice Association’s “Celebration of Black Cinema & TV.” “However, most people are unwilling to explore and generally embrace mainstream titles.”
Edwards called “Origin” a “must see and really important film.” He also recommended the independent drama, “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” from first-time director Raven Jackson.
“American Fiction” also comes from a first-time director.
Actor Sterling K. Brown, who received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his role in the film, said he wanted to join the cast as soon as he read the script from writer-director Cord Jefferson.
“I never underestimate the power of a story well told,” Brown said at a press conference in West Hollywood promoting the film. “And the fact that it gets to be populated with people with melanin makes me really excited.”
But after “American Fiction” and other recent Black films slumped at the box office, Robertson warned studios may question if these movies are worth the investment.
“If we want to have our voices seen and heard, we have to support the content … otherwise it’s going to evaporate,” he said.