The biggest “surprise” of the weekend box office was also totally predictable: a film with a predominantly black cast drew a bigger audience than industry analysts expected.
Universal’s “Girls Trip,” a women-on-the-loose comedy starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish and Jada Pinkett Smith, made $30.4 million in its opening weekend, about 50 percent more than the $20 million Comcast Corp.’s film division estimated and second only to “Dunkirk.” Critics liked it too, with 88 percent positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
Even as industry forecasts underestimate the box office power of movies with diverse casts, Hollywood does seem to be getting a clue about the overall trend — movies don’t necessarily need white stars to succeed. In the U.S., people of color bought 49 percent of movie tickets in 2016, up from 45 percent the year previous, according to data from the Motion Picture Association of America.
The biggest predictor of a film’s success with growing non-white audiences is the relative non-white-ness of its cast, said Christy Haubegger, head of Multicultural Business Development for Creative Artists Agency. “This is not a niche at all,” she said. “Nobody would ever call ‘half’ a niche.”
Still, “Girls Trip” is only the latest example of a film with a black cast exceeding projections. “All Eyez On Me” beat expectations in its June opening weekend. Earlier this year, the debut of Universal’s “Get Out” knocked its competition out of first place, and, when it opened in wide release, “Hidden Figures” beat Walt Disney Co.’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which was in its fourth week in theaters.
‘Funny Is Funny’
As part of the campaign for “Girls Trip,” filmmakers Will Packer and Malcolm D. Lee went with the stars to this year’s Essence Festival, the four-day music fest central to the film’s plot. The movie screened in New Orleans during the weekend, and the cast participated in panels. At one point, Pinkett Smith and Latifah acknowledged the buying power of their audience.
“As a people, we always have to support diverse stories in our community,” Pinkett Smith said. “We have to remember that, because if you’re not buying it, it’s not going to get made.”
Following the targeted marketing — a strategy that also benefited Universal’s 2015 hit “Straight Outta Compton” — the studio distributed the film widely, a nod to the increasingly catholic tastes of white audiences.
“We actually went very deep into the marketplace,” said Nick Carpou, the studio’s president of domestic distribution. “We were putting this film out there into theaters in all sorts of markets and all sorts of neighborhoods. Funny is funny.”
Five years ago, Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. created Codeblack, a division that specifically produces and distributes content targeted at black audiences. Lions Gate also has an ongoing partnership with Tyler Perry, the creator of the blockbuster “Madea” movies. Jeff Clanagan, who leads the label, said they get better results by devoting a business unit to black audiences from development to distribution.
“If you’re not focused on those business segments then you’re not going to really build out a long-term business model for those audiences,” Clanagan said. “For us, it’s about target marketing. We know our audience, and we’re talking to our audience all of time.”
By staying active on social media and weighing in on cultural conversations — most recently Codeblack told fans they’d be willing to produce a Rihanna-Lupita Nyong’o heist movie as imagined by Twitter users — the studio’s executives stay in tune with the social media buzz generated by African-American users.
For example, when the label released “All Eyez On Me,” it tracked both the movie’s title and the shorthand, “the Tupac movie,” because that’s what some potential moviegoers were calling it. Traditional tracking services aren’t always that quick to recognize and account for colloquial phrases, Clanagan said. The film earned $26.4 million in its opening weekend, above the industry’s expected $21.8 million.
“The studios are looking to market in a more effective way and use these dollars more efficiently across the board,” said Talitha Watkins, an executive in CAA’s multicultural unit who previously worked on Universal’s marketing for “Straight Outta Compton” and the “Fast and Furious” movies.
Some studios now have celebrities promote films on Instagram or send them to events like the BET Awards. This reaches diverse audiences where they’re at, which Watkins and Haubegger say is increasingly critical for the success of any movie.
“We tend to go to the places where people invite us,” said Haubegger, who is Mexican-American. “Just like everyone else, a big part of it isn’t only reaching us, but moving us.”