By Ann Hornaday
CANNES, France — In 1995, Will Smith begged producer Jerry Bruckheimer to let him go to the Cannes Film Festival to promote “Bad Boys,” despite the parent studio’s insistence that a black actor would not get any traction with the international fans and journalists thronging the city’s beach-side promenade, the Croisette. Bruckheimer and Columbia Pictures eventually relented: Smith traveled to Cannes, held a news conference, threw a huge MTV party and charmed dozens of interviewers — and “Bad Boys” earned $140 million, nearly half of it overseas. Smith, who would systematically repeat that model in markets from Moscow to Johannesburg, emerged well on his way to international stardom.
As the 66th edition of Cannes gets underway Wednesday, Smith’s example has taken on new resonance — and urgency. For years, black filmmakers, or anyone interested in making movies starring or about black people, have been told that “black doesn’t travel,” the assumption being that the African American experience is too specific to be comprehensible, or commercial, anywhere but in the United States.
But some films coming to Cannes this year are poised to challenge the no-foreign-market assumption: “Sexual Healing,” a drama about the personal and creative resurgence of American singer Marvin Gaye starring Jesse L. Martin, will be in the hunt for international distribution at Cannes, its production having just begun in Ostend, Belgium, where the story is set.
Producer Frederick Bestall admits that financing was difficult to pull together for “Sexual Healing” and that casting a non-superstar in the lead “has its drawbacks” for international sales. But he’s cautiously optimistic that the film will find distributors outside the United States. Noting that Gaye sold more than 100 million records worldwide and that “Sexual Healing” will center on the singer’s relationship with Belgian promoter Freddy Cousaert, Bestall said, the film’s “human-relationship aspects transcend the concept of a black movie per se. I believe if the story is powerful enough and touches the human-nature side of [the story] rather than the race aspect, the film should do well.”
At a time when figures such as Smith, Barack Obama and Michael Jordan are global superstars, the assumption that films by and about black people won’t sell feels counterintuitive, or code for more corrosive biases. “We are stars, we are athletes that are hailed and fawned over throughout the world, our music people are fawned over throughout the world, you would assume the same would apply to our culture,” said director Lee Daniels. “I think it’s some sort of scam. I think something ain’t right in the kitchen.”
The perception that black films can’t open overseas has even more impact today, when international financing has become far more crucial to getting films made and foreign box office can account for between 60 and 70 percent of a movie’s total revenue. As foreign markets gain in importance, Hollywood will be even more prone to make movies that transcend language, with explosions, superheroes and special effects that take the place of dialogue. The troubling result is that fewer films will be made and seen, inside or outside the United States, that offer diverse reflections of American life.
The film industry is rife with examples of anonymous filmmakers who couldn’t get their project off the ground because their star or subject matter was black. But it’s also happened to some of the biggest players in the business. Last year, “Star Wars” creator George Lucas complained that he couldn’t find financing for “Red Tails,” about the Tuskegee Airmen, for just that reason. “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market [for black films],” he told Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.” “And that’s 60 percent of their profit. . . . I showed it to all of them and they said, ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’ ” The independent drama “Blue Caprice,” which stars Isaiah Washington in a story based on the 2002 Washington-area sniper case, will not be coming to the Cannes market this year, having failed to secure a high-end international sales agent.
For years, the conventional wisdom that black doesn’t travel has taken on the force of myth. Increasingly in recent years, it looks like the myth might be beginning to crumble. Not only have films starring Smith, Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah succeeded, but even relatively small films with no big names have done well. In 2011, “The Help” earned a surprisingly healthy $42 million overseas and last year “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s slavery-era spaghetti Western, broke all the filmmaker’s box office records.
But by far the most impressive groundbreaker recently was “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which Daniels brought to Cannes in 2009 as part of a far-ranging festival circuit that started with winning a grand jury award at Sundance the previous January. “Precious” featured no international stars to speak of (other than a virtually unrecognizable Mariah Carey) and was set within a highly specific urban American context. And yet the drama was a hit overseas, earning nearly a quarter of its $63 million worldwide gross there.
Daniels credits his early experience as a casting director, and later as a producer and first-time director, with helping to establish relationships with foreign distributors. He also notes that by the time he made “Precious,” he had perfected a way of subtly pushing back against the “black doesn’t travel” assumption.
“If you study my early films, ‘Monster’s Ball,’ ‘The Woodsman,’ ‘Shadowboxer,’ all had black people in them, but they also had viable white stars,” Daniels said. “Since I came from casting, I understood the concept of the value of African Americans overseas — or what Hollywood perceived to be the value of African Americans overseas — versus the white actors. So I’ve always purposely and strategically mixed it up in such a way that I can get my vision out, and at the same time keep my blackness in.”
Daniels’s strategy was never clearer than at Cannes last year: While his lurid Southern potboiler “The Paperboy” was making its wildly polarizing world debut at the festival, he was also drumming up distributors for his next project, “The Butler.” Knowing that the film’s protagonist — a White House butler played by Forest Whitaker — may not automatically garner interest, Daniels larded the production with lots of white stars — including Jane Fonda, James Marsden and Robin Williams — playing White House figures over eight presidential administrations.
“They’re really cameos in the film, but they got the movie green-lit, which was very disturbing,” Daniels said of the white actors in “The Butler.” “But it’s okay, because the script is great and it was a wonderful ‘Kumbaya’ moment for everybody who participated.”
Both Daniels and Will Smith present models worth emulating, said producer Jeff Clanagan, president of CodeBlack Entertainment. “It will take us to push the envelope,” said Clanagan, who plans to take the Kevin Hart documentary “Let Me Explain” to foreign markets where Hart has toured with his stand-up act. “Our talent has to go over there and support it.”
Similarly, Tambay Obenson, editor and chief writer at the film Web site Shadow and Act, noted that black filmmakers need to show up at international festivals such as Cannes, the better to establish the kinds of relationships with film professionals and audiences that held Daniels in such good stead. Some markets hold particularly strong potential: Obenson made a study earlier this year of black-themed films that played overseas and discovered that black American films often did well in South Africa and the United Kingdom.
“ ‘Think Like a Man’ did better in South Africa than ‘Jack Reacher,’ ” said Obenson, referring to the Steve Harvey-inspired rom-com and the Tom Cruise thriller. “It made about twice the box office compared to ‘21 Jump Street.’ When people say things like [black doesn’t travel], they’re saying the rest of world is just made up of white people. Look, there’s an entire continent called Africa with a billion black people on it, and not much of a film industry outside Nigeria and East Africa. There are black people around the world who want to see black people on-screen.”
David Glasser, chief operating officer of the Weinstein Company, which released “Django Unchained” and will distribute “The Butler” in August, believes that the notion of “black doesn’t travel” is on its way to becoming obsolete. “A good movie is a good movie, and these barriers are coming down,” Glasser said. “It’s all about quality now.”
He can point to at least one persuasive example: One of Weinstein’s Sundance acquisitions, the grand jury award-winner “Fruitvale Station,” is a movie by a black filmmaker based on the real-life case of an African American man who was shot to death by a police officer in Oakland, Calif. The film will make its European debut at this year’s Cannes’s “Un Certain Regard” section, with its international distribution territories already sold out.