Will a Film Starring a Black Cast Sell Overseas? Ask a Pirate!
by Nicole Franklin
(Hollywood) Legend has it that “Black Films don’t sell overseas.” I could say it’s a proclamation I’ve heard tossed around the production offices for years from many talented Black, Latino, Asian and Native creatives as the propaganda to intentionally block far too many of our productions from mainstream success. For us, this element of arrogance maintains a storytelling formula of the world being saved by a white hero in a white hat. But to say films starring people of color have no international appeal is without merit, and affects the business of films featuring prominent characters of color and films by creators of color. Is there a primary source who will take ownership of this heinous lie? Just like my colleagues of color, I’ve encountered that phrase in person — from the source — several times during my 28-year career. The most recent offer to school me with this supposed impenetrable theory took place in November 2017.
Does the phrase “Black Films don’t sell overseas” hold any truth?
Can the success of Black Films overseas ever happen?
Yes, and it’s been the case many times over.
Will Hollywood studios with big pockets still say “Black Films don’t sell overseas” even after the Blackest superhero movie to ever dominate theatrical multiplexes has crossed the billion dollar mark in international box office sales?
Because that’s how implicit bias works. And when it’s birthed in overt discrimination based on race, the resulting fairytales, myths and fables are destined to have a long, long life.
The first time I was given the news bulletin that projects I would pitch, based in the Black life I knew best, were film ideas that “without a gun, murder or drug crime in the story” would never sell was when I was a young producer starting out in Los Angeles. In the early 1990s I was peddling a highly entertaining and very clever script written by a friend of mine, featuring the young, gifted and black. We were pre-Love Jones but post-Jason’s Lyric. It felt like this was our time. I had the double fortune of having just come off an accelerated education — probably the length of two phone calls — from another friend who taught me how to package a film. We hired a name director, who brought on a name cast just as exciting, and my phone pitch to development executives with this tight combination afforded me many studio meetings with development executives. I was curious as to why I was getting somewhere with so many people who would never say no, but who would never say yes either. I was told, “Oh that’s just Los Angeles.” True. But I felt there was something more.
I wish I could remember which studio gave me the meeting that finally revealed the big secret, but to this day I am extremely grateful. I remember it was a one-on-one meeting. The executive was probably in his late 20s. And he had read the script cover to cover. He saw I was not going to leave without a reason why he liked the script but would not move forward with it.
“Nicole, the way our business works is that we make most of our money in the overseas market.”
I nodded in the affirmative. Made sense to me. And I then pictured my team and I racking up those frequent flier miles.
“But unless you put a gun, drugs or a murder in this story, I can’t sell it.”
I asked him somewhat impulsively, “Really? Why is that?”
He said his Asian audiences needed an action flick and he knows he could possibly make sales with a comedian like Eddie Murphy (it was the ’90s) attached in that specific territory and in other markets. But that was it: Action, drugs, or Eddie Murphy. I found that quite limiting. And I thanked him for the inside tip. Now I was clear. We have to go indie.
Raising money as an indie production in LA meant head on over to the American Film Market (AFM). I actually met a few more open-minded execs, but the caveat there was they needed first monies in. First monies in meant independent financing. The world before crowdfunding heavily relied on a practice known as gap financing. And gap financing relied on foreign sales which, in turn, relied on “bankable talent” which meant Eddie Murphy and maybe — maybe — four other Black luminaries to make up the “handful of Black stars recognizable to an overseas audience.”
Los Angeles was not the place to be an independent creator at the time. There were a few who broke through the mold, but not as many who thrived in a bustling community where indie film was the norm: New York City.
So I packed up for the Right Coast, and I already had another film topic in mind. Double Dutch jumprope was being talked about as a potential Olympic sport. I was hooked. Could it be that my childhood pastime that I shared with so many, may now may be an international sensation? Very cool. And what was equally as cool is when you land in New York and are asked, “What kind of things are you into?” and you answer, “I’m a filmmaker,” the follow-up is refreshingly, “Let me know how I can help.” I heard that a lot, actually. My New York film family rocks.
Two years after landing in NYC, I had feature documentary on double Dutch jumprope in the works. The year it was complete we were accepted into the IFP Market who set up a meeting with Sundance Channel. This is where I say the rest is history. Well, with my very first produced film getting a two-year deal and airing on the Sundance Channel, yes, that is something I’ll always be proud of — especially for the crew and all of those who agreed to let us into their sacred spaces, gym practices and competitive routines to film the project of a lifetime.
But something else happened at the IFP Market that will remain with me forever. The IFP Market was filled with benefits for the filmmakers in attendance. There was a particular event that had my laser-focus attention: A panel on international distribution. I sat listening to the panel in rapt attention. One of the more knowledgeable and, it seemed, approachable panelists was a woman who I made my way over to meet when the public portion of the discussion wrapped. I introduced myself, handed her my postcard with a little girl mid-jump as the image, and told her I would love for my double Dutch documentary to sell overseas. She listened to my pitch while examining the handout and I told her of our warm reception from the screening audience while at the Market. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. The producer/foreign sales expert, handed back my postcard with the words, “I can’t do anything with this.” I’m not sure what my face said (well, I’m pretty sure) but I thanked her for her time, took my film that had also been nominated for the IFP Market Gordon Parks Award that year, and moved on.
I refocused during the next few years in search of the next project. Sure I had other films and a commissioned project come my way and I did them, but what was the next passion project? Whatever it was, it had to have international appeal. I was determined.
A friend of mine hired me to do promo reels for The Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago. And after a few years of working together, the founder of The Center, the late Dr. Samuel A. Floyd, met me in New York to ask if I would consider filming a coveted interview for him.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said.
When he then mentioned, “She was the original Bess of ‘Porgy and Bess,’” I told him, “Yes, I just saw her in a documentary about all of the actors who played those two lead roles. Hers was my favorite segment!”
Dr. Floyd was excited that I was excited. He told me I would have to travel, though, because for the last 40 years or so, she’d made a home in Oslo, Norway. My director of photography and I were on a plane two weeks later. What a coupe! Here lies a movie filled with art, passion and beauty, that may finally break these figurative borders.
Our film on the life of Anne Brown has gone through several stages, and finally ended up being sold as an oral history piece a few years ago — with DVDs available in Norway, of course. But I’m proud to say it first started out as proposed feature documentary for which we had a strong fundraising trailer. The year was 2005 and we, again, were accepted into the IFP Market, and nominated for another Gordon Parks Award — as a 20-minute fundraising trailer, not even a finished film! It was a true honor. The Market has been great to me and the growing membership of the Black Documentary Collective (BDC), of which I am a longtime member. During the week of the Market I had a nice lunch with a fellow BDC member and was telling him of all the dreams I had for this piece.
At lunch I reminisced with my colleague: “Do you know a little more than 10 years ago is when I was first told that Black films don’t sell overseas and I’ve been fighting to disprove that ever since?” A young Caucasian woman at the table next to us overheard me and said, “I just came from a panel inside. One of the speakers just said that. I thought that sounded very strange, actually.” I thanked her for telling me. I didn’t inquire — and highly doubted — if it was the same woman I met at the Market five years prior. But more to the point, this poisonous statement has been around so long, it’s now doctrine.
Next, I’m not sure if I felt disappointment, hurt, regret, or a tinge of unworthiness when my film career came full circle and I came face to face with the overseas opponent that gave me the shock of a lifetime.
It happened a year or so later. A young filmmaker contacted me out of the blue and invited me to her film premiere at the very popular Tribeca Film Festival. She was booked in a very large theater where she promised to hand me a pass on the red carpet. When she first called I was confused as to why she chose me as a guest. But she was very upfront with me, and quite kind. She informed me her film was on double Dutch jumprope. She watched my film for research, and since she ended up meeting a lot of the same “players” who agreed to go on camera, as well as they informed her they had already been in a film with me, she thought there was no question that she would reach out to me one day. She really wanted me to be there.
What people outside of the film industry may wonder about it is, “What happens when someone takes your idea?” A documentary on double Dutch jumprope was never solely my idea. There had been a couple of films and filmed profiles done on the sport before and there would continue (hopefully) to be many more. My team and I had our time in the sun and we’re very grateful. As much and as many times as you can get the story told, please do! I can’t speak for all filmmakers but if our passion that drives us is truly the story, then it is the story that you want to outlive your existence. And if you’re as passionate about telling the story as you say you are, no one is going to tell it the same way as you will. No one.
The filmmaker — who did an excellent job, by the way — is Stephanie Johnes. Her film was a delight and the audience was packed. My only regret when I was watching her film was an incident that occurred just before entering the theater and taking my seat.
I met Stephanie and congratulated her and she introduced me to her producer who held the passes needed for entry. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Her producer — a producer on this feature length documentary starring many children of color and the art of jumping rope — was the same woman, a film executive who was invested in a life of foreign sales, whom I met years ago at the IFP Market. She is the same producer who dismissed any conversation about my award-nominated film on double Dutch jumprope with “I can’t do anything with this” and shutting me up by handing this Black girl (me) my postcard featuring another Black girl on the cover. The filmmaker on her new project is white, and I’m not saying that caused the change of heart, but…seeing her there attached to this project is where I thought my eyes were deceiving me. An even bigger question: Did she remember me, and not reach out as Stephanie had done to tell me about a subject she knew my team and I had covered quite thoroughly enough to get us a domestic cable deal years before?
I guess we both played the game. I didn’t bring up our prior meeting either. And she made no acknowledgement of recognizing me — at all. I took my pass and went in to applaud another filmmaker’s passion film on its way to success. Again, I was happy to do so. But when does the hypocrisy of those with the purse strings (in this case, the film’s producer) end? I called my Mom and told her the details. She listened. She then said, “I guess you were before your time.” I then knew I had joined many many fellow creatives of color who held the same status. But, overall, that was a tough one.
My friends reading this will remember that around this time also, I wrote a response to an article in the New York Times business section that interviewed Bob Weinstein and printed his quote, “Black films don’t sell overseas.” I was steamed. I fired off a Letter to the Editor with evidence from the website Box Office Mojo to my counterposition, and I knew the Times probably wouldn’t print it. But I had my email list, and a Facebook account. Someone was going to read it. It became a very active post. I’m fine to send anyone first hearing of it here a copy per your request.
I’m in development for our Norway project to film as a dramatic feature narrative sometime soon, so the dream to make a big splash with a multi-million dollar film due to a large return on the investment did not end. But — because I know I’ll need to go to Hollywood for the financing, I know that Hollywood wants to see a narrative feature under my belt — in addition to the feature-length doc and more than 10 shorts and TV projects I have directed since. Hey, I’m a Black woman director. It’s a given that I’ll have to do extra to prove my worth.
Microbudget films were now becoming a popular route to industry recognition and, ultimately, recognition independent of the industry if creatives put their business hats on and work alternative distribution to their favor. I had a wonderful offer of crew plus equipment plus locations in order to film my microbudget and we did so on an eight-day shooting schedule. The result: A daring and provocative black and white feature film called TITLE VII. After our premiere festival, we were approached by a sales agent. I spoke with him about my desire to include a rigorous pursuit of foreign sales and I found that bringing films of color to the international market is a mission of his as well. We were on the same page.
I love that our film blows the lid off harassment in the workplace with a strong storyline where the lead character is a Black woman CEO who does not hire other Black employees. One of the strategies our rep had for sales was hours of pitching at AFM. I’d been there before, so it made sense to me. When he gave me the follow-up report from making the rounds he told me flat out, “I gotta get past being told ‘Black Films don’t sell overseas.’ I keep hearing that and it was just repeated again at AFM. But I just have to make them fall in love with this film as much as I have.”
His experience with my film at AFM was November 2017. Keep in mind, that same year we’d seen Get Out, Girls Trip, The Fate of the Furious (of The Fast and the Furious franchise), continued success from Hidden Figures out the year before, and a much lower budgeted film called Moonlight defy box office expectations in overseas markets, in just one year. Black Panther had not begun pre-sales just yet, but it’s not like people around the world were not going to watch it.
What’s going to stop future utterances of this nonsensical phrase, “Black Films don’t sell overseas,” within earshot of creatives who just want to make a good film for audiences everywhere to enjoy? Nothing. As I noted in another article, Shadow and Act’s Tambay Obenson said it best when he acknowledged overseas audiences have been watching our films for years — via bootlegged copies since that was their only option. That really isn’t a business model that works in our favor. But, what choice do they have?
I believe more filmmakers of color than ever will be responsible for thousands of new titles to come to mobile devices, streaming services and even some theaters screens near you wherever you are in the world. I believe the majority of these films could equally impress when it comes to story structure, aesthetics, casting, character development and production values compared to any award-winning film Hollywood deems its “Oscar best” for many years to come. I believe wherever I make an appearance, I’ll still hear the question, “Nicole, where may I see your film and all of the other films you’ve talked about that don’t get major distribution?” And for this reason, I believe my new app, Black Film Pirate, which is a catalogue referencing thousands of films and digital media that have been marginalized will launch this Fall to much acclaim. Our app is as a one-stop shop that identifies filmmakers who know no limits and programmers, sales agents and distributors of color who no longer have to feel doing international business with films starring characters of color and by filmmakers of color will be a pre-determined failure.
Black Film Pirate is a chance to change the world.
I did not go through three decades of a very specific “no” to my film career plans and potential overseas business not to finally see change. I knew early on that I would have to be a part of the change. Call me an outsider. Call me a pirate. I’ll take it. And I’ll bring a more than capable crew of adventurers with me.
We too want the fantasy. We too want the perfect ending to our journey. We’ll match your myth with reality in numbers, repeat business and fans. It’s #APiratesLifeForMe. And, as visionary talent Jordan Peele boldly stated to the unsuspecting Oscar crowd, “It’s a renaissance.” See you at the movies.