Dreamgirls has enjoyed a remarkable run, winning two Oscars, seeing Jennifer Hudson emerge as the toast of Tinseltown, and crossing the $100 million barrier at the domestic box office. But the musical’s greater financial situation tells a more troubling story — namely, the difficulty studios have in selling movies starring African-Americans internationally.
As The New York Times reported in a long feature yesterday, Dreamgirls has earned more than $101 million in the U.S. and Canada, but Paramount expects it will make little more than $60 million abroad. Which is particularly problematic in an era when Hollywood increasingly depends on foreign box office to drive profits. These days, 52 percent of movie earnings come from international markets. As BET Networks entertainment president and House Party director Reginald Hudlin says in the Times‘ story, "I always call international the new South. In the old days, they told you black films don’t travel down South. Now they say it’s not going to travel overseas." At home, frequent box office champ Will Smith seems like the biggest star on the planet, but the Times quotes industry watcher James Ulmer as saying that Smith ranks no better than No. 12 in terms of worldwide bankability.
Who’s to blame? "The international marketplace is still fairly racist," Ulmer tells the Times. That’s unfortunately plausible, yet there may be some things Hollywood could do to improve the situation:
• The most common type of movie that Hollywood makes with African-Americans? Comedies. Yet among the top domestic grossers of 2006, every comedy (Talladega Nights, Click, Borat, The Break-Up) fared better at home than abroad; American humor apparently doesn’t travel well.Unfortunately, studios fear that black people don’t go to the movies,so they don’t make many different kinds of movies for black people(much like they don’t make many movies for women). But as the successof Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness (pictured) or Tyler Perry’s films (or, in the case of female-driven movies, The Devil Wears Prada)shows, those fears are misguided, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the studiosmade more high-quality dramas with African-Americans, rather than broadgenre films, maybe international audiences would be interested. The industry certainly won’t know if it doesn’t try.
• How come, as Hudlin points out toward the end of the Times‘story, black pop stars going back to Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley are sosuccessful internationally, but not movie stars? Why are Michael Jordanand Muhammad Ali considered among the most famous people on Earth, but Smith is merely the No. 12 actor? As those examples show, when amighty marketing machine (which, last we checked, Hollywood’s got) putsits mind to it, African-Americans can be embraced globally.
There are so many other avenues we can go down here. But it’s yourturn, PopWatchers: How can Hollywood fix this racial disconnect?