“Think Like a Man,” the No. 1 movie in North America over the weekend came as a shock to the movie industry: the romantic comedy aimed at black audiences grossed $33 million, double what execs predicted. But it’s those same skeptic studio executives who end up winning because the film only cost $13 million to make.
“Think Like a Man,” is based on Steve Harvey’s bestselling book and stars an almost all-black cast.
There’s a common understanding amongst studio executives in Hollywood that films with black protagonists don’t make money and as a result they won’t take risks with films. For reference, Universal’s production budget for the recently released “American Wedding” was $50 million, excluding marketing costs. “The Lucky One” starring Zac Efron which was released last Friday cost about $25 million to make—double the budget of “Think like a man.” (I would argue that “Think Like a Man” had a bigger cast with more recognizable names and it was still a cheaper movie to make than other films opening this weekend…flagging another issue, of course.)
Even highly celebrated director Tyler Perry who consistently rakes in millions at box offices has relatively low budgets for his films. In January, when Perry learned “Star Wars” director George Lucas couldn’t fund his film “Red Tails” he said “movies starring an all African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct.”
“The first thing they’ll say is that DVD sales have become very soft, so it’s hard for a movie with an all black cast to break-even,” Perry wrote on his website. “Secondly they’ll say, most movies are now dependent on foreign sales to be successful and most “black” movies don’t sell well in foreign markets.”
Taraji P. Henson who stars in “Think Like a Man” has made similar assertions herself in the past. At a Screen Actors Guild forum she told writers and producers developing films with black leads to not mention anything about race.
“If you’re a writing a project don’t go in [to studios] and say ‘black movie’—stop, because you won’t get the money,” Henson said in 2011. “Just say it’s a lovely story about these people, don’t tell them the race because you won’t get the money.”
A study last year by Andrew J. Weaver, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University found “minority cast members” do in fact lead white audiences to be less interested in seeing certain films.
Opening weekend audiences for “Think Like a Man” were overwhelmingly female: 37% males and 63% females: 38% were under 30, and 62% were 30 and over, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
It is unclear what the racial breakdown was but it’s safe to assume it was a multiracial group because of how much it grossed in just a small numbers of theaters. At a Saturday night sold out show in Los Angeles that I attended the audience was mixed and many reviewers have made similar claims.
“For every screening we had of this film, the exit poll ratings were through the roof,” Sony distribution topper Rory Bruer told Variety. “It really is a stunning result when you consider the movie cost around $12 million.”
“Think Like a Man’s” opening weekend also had stronger opening than a number of Tyler Perry’s recent films, including “Why Did I Get Married Too?” and “Madea’s Big Happy Family.” Both debuted with under $30 million, according to the LA Times.
A Colorlines.com poll taken last year found that 65% of respondents believed both studio executives and moviegoers are to blame for the lack of black protagonists in films.
It’s important to celebrate the success of a film with black protagonists but it’s a bitter sweet celebration because it’s the studio that ends up winning. The same studio who didn’t want to take a risk with a film like “Red Tails” because it was too expensive (and too black) made it’s money back on just opening night.
Let’s hope they take some of that cash and put it towards including more actors of colors in their more mainstream projects with much bigger budgets.