How ‘Girls Trip’ Proved A Black, Female-Driven Comedy Can Appeal To A Mass Audience

Any serious executive in the film industry still insisting that diversity doesn’t win big at the box office clearly hasn’t been paying attention to 2017 so far. This summer’s breakout comedy hit ‘Girls Trip’, starring Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Regina Hall and Tiffany Haddish should easily put to rest any studio or investor’s fears about female-driven films, and especially those starring women of color.

When it comes to numbers, the box office is where it counts. ‘Girls Trip’ opened to $30.4 million, which is the best showing for an R-rated comedy in two years, and the best showing for any live-action comedy so far this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The audience breakdown also matters here, because it shows this film was not just a one-off appealing to a black viewership.

While African-Americans did make up 51% of ticket-buyers, Caucasians followed closely behind making up 38%. In it’s opening weekend, it faced off against Christopher Nolan’s war epic ‘Dunkirk’, which came in at number one with $50.5 million. No doubt Universal, the studio behind ‘Girls Trip’ are the ones really cheering, because they spent $20 million to produce their comedy hit and came out ahead, whereas ‘Dunkirk’ cost a whopping $100 million.

“Universal president of domestic distribution Nick Carpou says it is certainly true that Hollywood has viewed films with black leads as having limited appeal, but that times are changing,” writes THR’s Pamela McClintock, who also draws parallels to two other major films over the past few months that show this ‘Girls Trip’ high is not an anomaly.

In December 2016, ‘Hidden Figures‘ was the number 1 film two weeks in a row, the first live-action, non-franchise film starring more than one female lead to do this since 2011’s ‘The Help’ (both of which starred the amazing Octavia Spencer!). It should also be noted that ‘Hidden Figures’ beat ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, no big deal…

More recently, Jordan Peele’s comedy/thrilled ‘Get Out’, released earlier this year starring Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams made the Comedy Central star the first African American writer/director to earn $100 million in his debut film. While the film didn’t have a primarily black cast, the central themes of race, politics and police brutality certainly presented it from the African-American gaze, so to speak.

The films are not just anomalies, they are part of a growing trend which we hope to see continue. We’re not sure why it has taken so long for the Hollywood studio system to recognize diversity pays off, but with the overall changing landscape of media and entertainment which has been solidly disrupted by streaming services as well as social media and digital platforms getting into the original content game, the field is ripe for greater opportunity for filmmakers.

In August 2016, Ava DuVernay was announced as the first black woman to direct a $100 million film – Disney’s ‘A Wrinkle In Time’. In June 2016 ‘Creed’ director Ryan Coogler was announced as the first African-American to helm upcoming Marvel film ‘Black Panther’, the comic book cinematic universe’s first black superhero movie.

Both ‘A Wrinkle In Time’ and ‘Black Panther’ are getting some major buzz online as various publicity stills and teaser trailers have been released over the past few months. No doubt each of these films will continue to show audiences and studios alike that no matter who buys the tickets, lead actors who happen to be black and female are just as interesting to watch.

Back to ‘Girls Trip’, a racy comedy about 4 best friends who travel to New Orleans for a wild weekend of fun (not exactly a new format, think ‘The Hangover’ or ‘Rough Night’), Universal says the success shows audiences are happy as long as the story is good.

“‘Girls Trip is a bold film. The characters are highly relatable, and the story speaks a universal language,” said Universal president of domestic distribution Nick Carpou.

This is not like the typical Tyler Perry movie which primarily plays to African-American audiences, although even the last ‘Madea’ film showed a growing diversity in its audience makeup. Box office analyst Jeff Bock told THR it’s disappointing not to see more Girls Trips throughout the calendar year.

“The sad truth is, ‘Girls Trip’ is the first film of the summer that caters to African-American audiences. How does that happen in this day and age? It’s disappointing that mid-range hits aren’t considered a priority anymore by studios, especially over the summer months,” he said.

In a separate interview with THR, the film’s co-producer Will Packer, who has produced other hits such as ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and the ‘Ride Along’ franchise, said it is a myth that black films don’t play well to non-black audiences.

“It really is time people realize that good content is good content, and an audience is an audience. ‘Hidden Figures’ didn’t get to its number only on an African-American female audience. ‘Get Out’ didn’t get to its number only on an African-American horror audience. Both of those films were good films, and you had audiences who were not at all held back by the fact that African-Americans were the lead roles,” he said.

“It is starting to change so that we’re not pigeonholed by our casting. The next barrier is the international marketplace. That will be the next domino to fall in terms of films with African-American actors truly being treated the same as other films.”

He also says the idea that primarily white films sell better and a black film won’t sell overseas as well as the others becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy” by distribution companies either unwilling to take the chance, or by default will put more money into the film with the majority white cast because it is familiar territory.

Yet even some of the smaller films with an all-black cast have proven this to be incorrect, the best example being Oscar-winning hit ‘Moonlight’, which grossed $10 million more at the foreign box office compared to domestic.

“We have to change the way we’re thinking in the distribution chain. I was really encouraged by the numbers that ‘Moonlight’ has done internationally.That’s a film without huge international stars, an all African-American cast, thematically a very African-American story, and it worked. And the reality is that a good story is a good story, and it will resonate with audiences. Period. You don’t need any qualifier on the word ‘audience’,” he said.

Enough said!


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