Support Shawn's writng with a donation

Friday, June 10, 2011

Is there a market for Black Films at the International Box-Office?

Is there a market for Black Films on the foreign market?

When it comes to box-office African-American films tend to struggle in American markets and do even worse business in foreign markets, where film studios reap the most profits. I have to wonder: Is there a market for Black films outside of the United States?

I believe there is a market for Black films in the foreign market. However, African-American filmmakers and actors are making the wrong products. Urban comedies and Race dramas may do well with African-American audiences but leave foreign audiences cold. Part of that has to do with craft, the other with premise. If Black filmmakers can overcome these barriers, I believe they can break through to the foreign market.

Craft wise most African-American films just aren’t made well. When foreign audiences watch American films, they tend to follow the actions of the characters while listening to the dialogue dubbed in. Because many black films feature poor transitions between scenes and poor shot framing, it’s very hard for audiences outside of America to follow the action that’s going onscreen.

Worse, most black films tend to have a lot of dialogue. Most Black films “tell” a story first and don’t “show” what’s going on. Foreign audiences with language barriers struggle to follow a Black film because the characters talk so much and do so little.

To experiment with this, watch a classic film with the audio turned off and no subtiitles. Then watch a Black film (not a Spike Lee Joint, Doug McHenry film or a Kasi Lemmons) with the audio turned off with no subtitiles. Because key scenes are missing or not shot properly and characters talk so much it becomes very hard to watch the story.

Another issue is Premise. Films that do well in International markets tend to be action films, animated films, dramas, fantasy films epics and romantic comedies. These are genres most black films usually aren’t made in.

It’s clear there is a market for African-American entertainment abroad it’s just not being tapped properly. Hip-hop stars do better in foreign markets than in the U.S. and many African-American TV shows find an audience outside of the United States. African-American athletes have legions of fans outside of the States, as do African-American actors. If African-American films are to branch out to International markets and compete in foreign markets, Black filmmakers are going to have to start thinking outside of the limitations of Urban comedies and race dramas and focus on improving the quality of the films being produced.

The international audience wants film products in genres like Fantasy, Science fiction, and action/adventure. Because foreigners follow the action going on the screen and not the dialogue the storytelling Black filmmakers who want to compete in foreign markets in addition to US markets will have to adapt their styles to be more action-oriented and less dialogue-oriented.

Cinematically, transitions will have to be edited to flow from one shot to the next and shots framed to be clear.

Regardless of genre, most stories that do well internationally tend to have universal themes that transcend race and relate to the human condition. That and a lot of explosions and shootings.

Can Black filmmakers break out and compete internationally? I believe they can. There may be some challenges, but I believe Black films can find a market overseas.


  1. I think AA's owe you a debt of gratitude. I haven't read anything else useful about this subject, although I feel some advice has been given on this. We are going to have to learn that we now live in One World whether we like it or not.

    I'm saving this blog becase it's an eye opener for me. I never hope to become a film writer, but I love reading about the craft. And are you ever so right about universality. I think that's where we fall way behind. Only if it concerns us and ours do we buy into it, produce and market it. Very few are living like this these days.

    So Shawn, please do give us more in this vein and here's hoping your advice will be heeded and we'll all profit by it.

  2. Just discovered your blog. This is a real position regarding why African American films don't do better in international territories is because they tend not to expand the cinematic approach and use less dialog. Your example is a excellent one, to turn-off the sound as see if you can follow the story. I have taken the position for a few years that independent African American filmmakers need should look at emerging filmmakers from Brazil, West Africa, South Africa and parts of Europe to discover another level of telling their stories. International Distribution is the new-south for Black Filmmakers.