Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It's Really a Question of Money

I saw this blog shared on Facebook, and it made me want to respond. Madame Noir's post: Why Are We Expected To Line Up For Red Tails But Not Pariah

Go ahead and read it. It's worth considering.

Now, some folks out that might say that I'm in no position to comment on this, because I'm a white male. Fair enough. However, my response to that is that I'm a pretty aware, socially liberal guy who's always happy to see any minority get any sort of representation on screen. Especially when it's not in an exploitative or stereotypical way.

There is, however a number of things about Madam Noir's post I have trouble with, and which, right up front, I have trouble with having seen neither Red Tails or Pariah, yet.

First off, why is it a competition? These are two very different films that attempt to provide positive images of African Americans in very different ways. Why does Madam Noir feel the need to create some sort of feud here, even if she preferred Pariah, or found it more personally resonant? Why can't both do well? Of course, what she also kind of rushes past is that "doing well" is a vastly different thing for each of these pictures.

Red Tails has to be a labor of love for George Lucas. He, personally, ponied up 58 million dollars to make the film, 35 million dollars to distribute the film (Fox is the listed distributor, but would only handle the film if Lucas paid costs himself), and additional marketing costs. The total is somewhere in the range of 100 million dollars of his personal fortune in order to get this film in theaters. The costs are studio blockbuster big, but Red Tails is, technically, the most independent feature in theaters right now.

Does Lucas want to make money? Of course he does, and he's taking the steps he feels he needs to in order to A) gets butts in the seats, and B) make his money back. He couldn't get studio support, to offset his financial risk, because he wanted to make a big-budget, action-adventure blockbuster with a black director, black screenwriters, and an all-black cast.

"Mr. Star Wars" couldn't get a studio to take a risk on a picture like this. How could Spike Lee? Or John Singleton? Or any African-American filmmaker with an idea, and a desire to get something grand and epic on the screen? Lucas had deep pockets, and made it happen all on his own. Those other guys could not make that happen.

Pariah, on the other hand, according to this fundraising website, had a budget of 350 thousand dollars. Or, that was the goal, anyway, it may be less. The film was purchased by Focus Features at the 2011 Sundance film festival, and along with that, writer/director Dee Rees made a deal to develop another script for Focus. I can't find actual sale price for the film, but seeing as how there was a bidding war, I'm willing to bet Pariah's backers, and Dee Rees,  walked away with at least a bit of profit almost a year before the film even opened.

That is absolutely awesome. It's a victory, and I'm very happy that Rees will now have the opportunity to continue to make her voice heard. By making a good film, she assured her ability to do that. Everyone should be inspired by that.

The point being, these films have hugely different goals, and hugely different scales on which to compute their "success." The question Lucas is raising is along the lines of "why can't Spike Lee get the studio backing to make a 100 million, or even 50 million dollar film?" Spike Lee can probably walk into any studio with a 350 thousand dollar script and get a deal, because the studio can see the profit potential, but at a certain level, a certain budget, the perception of profit goes away. Lucas is trying to prove that's not the case.

Studios and distributors will take a chance on a low budget, up-from-the-gutters film like Pariah, because, historically, audiences will turn out for it. Executives can point to Precious, or Do The Right Thing, or Boyz in the Hood, and say, "this is what we can expect in business from a 'black' film." Lots of hay is made about racism in Hollywood, but, when you come right down to it, it's about money.

Tyler Perry is a success for one reason. It's not because studios and executives think he's the be-all, end-all, in terms of talent, or because he strikes them as "safe." It's because he always makes films for a certain price, and they make a certain amount of profit. The studio could care less about his "christian values," or the color of his skin. He makes them money, period.

Ultimately, that's why Red Tails, and it's success or failure, could have a greater impact on the future of African-American filmmakers than the success or failure of Pariah. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of either film (and, again, I've seen neither), but with expanding the idea of what a viable "black film" is.

Let's be honest, how many films have we seen about a black kid, living in a slum with abusive parents, gang violence, and struggling for redemption? Quite a few. How many have we seen where a group of young black men become heroes of World War II? Only one I can think of.

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