“Think Like a Man” shatters box office myths about black films
Ensemble romantic comedy Think Like a Man is generating lots of buzz after ending The Hunger Games’ month-long run as #1 at the box office (despite playing in much fewer theaters), and almost doubling initial projections of its opening weekend take. The film’s success challenges conventional Hollywood wisdom about the limited profitability and appeal of movies with predominantly black casts. Though the racial break down of audiences who viewed Think Like a Man this weekend is unknown, its unexpected box office haul suggests that the movie had a significant degree of “crossover” appeal.
Sidebar: I’m just going to note how very weird it is to describe white audiences viewing “black” or “urban” films as being “crossover” audiences, while people of color viewing the white washed landscape that is movies for “general audiences” is just…normal, I guess? Doesn’t anyone in Hollywood ever feel a little uncomfortable with this terminology?
To be fair, it’s true that white viewers tend to be less interested in movies with a significant minority presence. But while the industry loves to put the marginalization of such “niche” films solely on white audiences and claim the bottom line as the only reason the business isn’t more diverse, this is is just one piece of the puzzle. White audiences don’t see themselves as the intended audience for minority films, but much of this can be attributed to marketing and distribution that focuses exclusively on minority audiences.
Subtle and overt racism in the form of limited financing, marketing, and distribution – or simple refusal to green light certain projects, as with Red Tails – work to ensure that white audiences who might be interested in these films never see them. The assumption that such movies have limited appeal turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy when they don’t receive the same exposure to a broad range of audiences as comparable movies with predominantly or all white casts.
Here’s the funny thing – despite Hollywood concerns about losing money on “niche” films, there’s a strong case to be made that the industry’s insistence that black films can’t be “crossover successes” dulls the ability of studios to make smart financial decisions about which projects to invest in, and how. The unwillingness to put as much into minority films or market them as aggressively as white films could very well be costing studios money.
Think Like a Man is a great example of this: its success shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given all the points in its favor. It had a built-in fan base in readers of its source material, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, the (believe it or not) best-selling relationship how-to it by comedian (and, *cough* thrice-married) Steve Harvey. It was “the best testing film in Hollywood” going into its opening weekend, with with virtually unheard of levels of favorable responses from racially diverse pre-screening audiences. It was produced by Will Packer, a black producer whose last three films have all opened at #1. And Think Like a Man benefitted from a clever, unorthodox marketing strategy that combined grassroots efforts, social media campaigns, and talk show appearances to both turn out larger black audiences and to get the film on the radar of audiences outside its expected niche. In short, it was marketed differently, and more broadly than most “black films” – and for certain audiences wasn’t really marketed as a “black film.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise given all these factors that Think Like a Man did so well at the box office. Yet it’s still “simultaneously confounded and astonished” Hollywood – a response justified only by an entrenched mentality about “black” or “urban” films that clearly leads studio execs to drastically lowball the box office potential of such films, even when the signs point to a hit.
I have mixed feelings about the performance of Think Like a Man. I want to support the success of a film with a mostly black cast, a black producer, and a black director, especially one that so handily beat the odds and expectations for it. But I can’t help but wonder why it had to be this film that successfully crossed over. It may be a hit with a lot of black women, but there are plenty of us who aren’t feeling the patriarchal, anti-woman relationship advice that drives its plot (interesting side note: while its audience was over 60% women, Think Like a Man got even more favorable reviews from men who saw it than from women).
I’ll be honest, I’m not going to see Think Like a Man, for reasons other black women have mentioned (and also because I have a toddler and babysitters are too expensive to waste just any movie). But it’s fair to ask if the overly sexist title makes the film only seem more retrograde by comparison in a genre of movies that’s…actually pretty retrograde in general, almost inherently so. Is Think Like a Man really much more sexist or gender essentialist than He’s Just Not That Into You, or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? Probably not.
On the one hand, patriarchy sucks. On the other hand, hey, black folks can make gender essentialist patriarchal movies that “general audiences” are interested in, just like white folks! Progress? A tiny bit?
I hate to be a downer, but I don’t think the success of Think Like a Man is going to significantly change prospects for minority films or filmmakers. It really only has implications for other movies just like it. It’ll spawn at least one sequel – probably more – and maybe give other romantic comedies with mostly minority casts a chance to be marketed to a broader audience. And it’s kind of sad that what in industry terms amounts to fairly small potatoes – a run of the mill romantic comedy with a $12 million budget – is such a big deal for “crossover” black film.
I’d be a lot more excited, not only if the content and subject of the movie were better or more sophisticated (I mean, really this is what white audiences will come out to see a black cast with so much talent do?), but also if there were any signs of studios green lighting more risky projects with black leads or mostly black casts. Where’s the big budget thriller with a black lead who isn’t a lone Will Smith in a sea of white characters? With a, gasp, black female lead, even? Where are the black Katnisses? Or, though I shudder to think of it, even the black Bella Swans? I’ll be more ready to celebrate when Hollywood is ready to spend the same levels of money on a black-led or black-created film as it does on Hunger Games.