For black films, going global isn't easy

The Baltimore Sun

LOS ANGELES -- When Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and company blasted their way through three Dreamgirls songs in this year's Academy Awards broadcast, they also had a message for the millions watching around the world: It wouldn't hurt to buy a movie ticket.

Dreamgirls is a solid hit in the United States, with more than $100 million in domestic box office sales, and its backers at DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures have been tiptoeing into the international marketplace. They hope that a couple of Oscars and a globe-spanning broadcast of the trio's performance will help overcome any foreign resistance to the musical genre and - more ticklishly - to a nearly all-black cast.

Only recently have movies begun to crack one of Hollywood's most troubling and least openly discussed problems: an international "color line" behind which films relying on black stars often do not perform well. The box office prowess of Dreamgirls overseas will help signal whether this newfound success is fleeting or more lasting.

"I always call international the new South," said Reginald Hudlin, the director of House Party and The Ladies Man and now the entertainment president of BET Networks, where he oversees television and feature-film operations. "In the old days, they told you black films don't travel down South. Now they say it's not going to travel overseas."

Most Hollywood executives, producers and analysts interviewed for this article delicately maintained that the resistance to black performers abroad had had less to do with bigotry than with the international audience's lack of experience with the humor or urban situations that figure in many of their films. Some in the industry, though, were more blunt.

"The international marketplace is still fairly racist," said James Ulmer, proprietor of the Ulmer Scale, which compiles input from about 100 international film professionals in a periodic rating of stars' "bankability." In Ulmer's rating, Will Smith, the highest-ranked black star, placed No.12 overall last year, behind Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey and others, notwithstanding industry chatter that has often tagged Smith as the biggest star today.

This state of affairs may be changing. According to figures compiled by the box-office reporting service, a series of 2005 films that staked their success squarely on black leads showed a strength in foreign theaters that has been seen rarely since Eddie Murphy had a period of global appeal after Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

Inside Man and Deja Vu, both starring Denzel Washington, had more than half of their ticket sales abroad, while Big Momma's House 2, starring Martin Lawrence, approached that level despite conventional industry wisdom that says comedies with actors of color don't travel well.

Films with these actors have usually been soft at the international box office, though Washington did well when paired with Hanks in Philadelphia, as did Lawrence when acting with Smith in the Bad Boys films. Smith's Hitch, released in 2005, did well overseas, collecting more than half of its $368 million in ticket sales abroad and capping his reputation as a star whose appeal transcends race in some of the most difficult markets. In fact, Smith's earlier success had pointed the way for contemporary black stars when Bad Boys unexpectedly became an international hit.

"The studio was deathly afraid that an action movie with two African-American movie stars would never travel the world," said Teddy Zee, who was an executive at Sony's Columbia unit when it made Bad Boys and was later among the producers of Smith's Hitch and The Pursuit of Happyness. "Efforts to sell it off failed. Columbia was stuck with international. But it did so well."

Today, Hollywood no longer considers international marketing an afterthought. Executives who deal with international markets said that major studios had quietly fostered an openness in Europe and Asia by investing heavily in the promotion of a small number of black stars, particularly Smith and Washington.

Washington and his Deja Vu co-star Paula Patton, for instance, traveled abroad and did extensive promotional work by satellite as part of a Walt Disney Co.-sponsored push that appears likely to yield as much as $115 million in international ticket sales, or around 64 percent of the film's expected worldwide total, said Mark Zoradi, president of the Walt Disney motion-pictures group.

The shifting economics of the movie business are the main reason for this change. International sources now account for more than half of studios' revenue. According to figures compiled by Kagan Research, American companies last year got 52 percent of about $48.2 billion in revenue from foreign sources, a share that has been expanding in recent years after hovering in the 40 percent range.

After five weeks in several international markets, Dreamgirls had taken in only about $28 million abroad, or roughly 22 percent of its total ticket sales, according to reported figures. But the film recently opened at No. 1 in a key market, Japan, displacing Smith's The Pursuit of Happyness (from Sony Pictures Entertainment) and putting two films with black stars atop the box office in a largely monoracial country that has not always been easy for African-American performers.

According to Rob Moore, Paramount's president for worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment, Dreamgirls appears likely to wind up with about $60 million in foreign ticket sales, or roughly 38 percent of its expected total, compared with about 44 percent for Chicago, a similarly high-profile musical released four years ago with a mostly white cast.

Historically, Moore said, an African-American cast has tended "to accentuate whatever weaknesses" a picture had in a foreign market. Thus a territory that was tough for comedy was even tougher for a comedy with black stars. To promote Dreamgirls, he said, the studio had its principals travel to countries where musicals do well, including Japan.

According to Don T. Nakanishi, director of the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, Smith's persistent presence abroad, combined with the prominence of Condoleezza Rice, Colin L. Powell and a handful of other prominent black Americans, has worked genuine change in Japan.

"They're developing a more nuanced view of America and an appreciation of multiracial societies," Nakanishi said.

Still, many black stars have continued to see their work slighted abroad, and that inability to conquer such markets can be the difference between landing a coveted role or not. In the past two years, according to the Boxofficemojo figures, Hustle & Flow, starring Terrence Howard, did only about 6 percent of its box-office business abroad; Are We There Yet?, with Ice Cube, did about 16 percent; and Last Holiday, with Queen Latifah, did 11 percent, despite its setting in a European mountain resort.

"For an international audience, when it looks like an urban movie with an African-American star in the lead, they just turn it off, and I find that incredibly discouraging," said Chris McGurk, the chief executive of Overture Films. McGurk was vice chairman of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Co. when it released the two Barbershop films, starring Ice Cube, to big business with both black and white audiences at home. They earned virtually nothing abroad.

In Hudlin's view, the international record of films with black leads would be better if companies extended more backing to stars beyond the top two or three. "Look at the success of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, all those black artists," he said. "They do great globally. But when it comes to film and TV, there's this huge barrier. I don't believe it. It doesn't make any sense."

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