Hollywood Was Surprised by the Success of "Think Like A Man". I Was Not. They Should Not Have Been Either.

posted Apr 24, 2012, 2:27 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Apr 30, 2012, 10:49 AM ]

Disclaimer: This is not a review of the film. 

Disclaimer #2: The opinions herewith are those of the writer and not necessarily that of the advertiser below. 

Think Like a Man, the film adaptation of Steve Harvey’s best-selling book of the same name, took the #1 spot at this past weekend’s box office.

For some reason, Hollywoodconsiders this to be a surprise. While exceeding expectations is always a good thing, being surprised in this case is not. Every time a so-called black film tops the weekend box office, studio executives react as if it was the first time in the history of film that such a feat had been accomplished. While much of the success of so-called black films in recent years can be attributed to Tyler Perry, his success should have been seen as an indicator that audiences are discerning enough to see beyond color to a thoughtful or entertaining story.

Instead, Perry became Hollywood’s go-to writer/director/producer for bringing black audiences to theaters as opposed to the throughway by which to introduce other such filmmakers with new and great stories of universal appeal to tell. Tyler Perry, like Spike Lee before him, isn’t the only black man who can write, direct, produce and star in movies with predominantly black casts and multi-ethnic audiences. He’s just the only one doing it at his level, which is a shame because Hollywood cannot live by Madea alone.

Instead of being considered a surprise, the success of Think Like a Man should be seen as further proof that there is a market for films with predominantly black casts. With all the number-crunching that goes on in the executive suites, I can’t imagine that they can’t somehow ascertain how an investment into such films – be they black, Latino, Asian, Indian, Native American or a mixture of them all – would be supported by a general audience. It’s a matter of won’t, not can’t.

Will they all achieve Think Like a Man success? Probably not. But at the same time, I would stake my growing reputation as an opinionist that some of those movies will perform even better. Just as the numbers could be (and probably have been) manipulated to show that so-called black films don’t do as well as so-called white films, those numbers can just as easily be manipulated to show the opposite.

It’s just as much about how you interpret those numbers as it is how you manipulate them – which is why I don’t like or trust numbers. For every report supporting the flawed theory that so-called black films can’t or don’t perform as well as so-called white films at the box office, an argument can be made that more so-called white films underperform than so-called black films.

Consider this scenario and interpretation. Suppose that 50% of so-called black films underperform, but only 25% of so-called white films underperform. If there have only been 2,000 so-called black films produced, that’s only 1,000 misses. If 150,000 so-called white films have been produced, that amounts to 37,500 misses.

In the interest of full and obvious disclosure, I don’t know what the numbers actually bear and I don’t care. The prevailing mindset is that so-called black films aren’t as marketable to general audiences because they don’t play as well as to them as so-called white films. There are a lot of so-called white movies for which the same can be said, but Hollywood continues to churn them out with sizeable budgets and huge marketing/advertising support.

When making such claims about so-called white films versus so-called black films, the TYPES of films being produced must also be considered. As a whole, so-called white films run the gamut of genres, but so-called black films haven’t that luxury. That gamut does range from the over-the-top buffoonery of a Perry film to the very heavy drama of Precious (2009). However, the “genre” of so-called black films isn’t accorded the same A-to-Z treatment as the “genre” of so-called white films, so the middle-ground between lowbrow comedy and heavy drama leaves much to be desired.

The lowbrow Madea comedies (of which there is yet another one coming out this spring) must be better balanced out by more higher-brow comedies such as Something New (2006). Heavy dramas like Precious must be better balanced out by lighter family dramas such as Jumping the Broom (2011). While Perry has balanced out Why Did I Get Married? and For Colored Girls with The Family That Preys (2008) and I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009), I’d like to see it done without his trademark piety.

When so-called black, non-Perry movies are produced, they typically have a racial, gangster theme to them or take place during the civil rights era.

I loved The Help (2011), enjoyed The Great Debaters (2007) and applaud Red Tails (2012), but civil rights-era dramas are becoming difficult to revisit as they become more a snapshot of what we know or think we know occurred. How many times can we draw from that well? We know what we know and we know that we can’t possibly know everything there is to know about what went on during that era. Therefore, I’d like to see these stories told from a more contemporary perspective to show how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t come. That’s how we can put some of the past to rest and figure out how we’re going to move forward. WE. As in ALL of us.

There was a string of post-Riot “hood” dramas in the 1990s that all but became a subgenre of so-called black film in and of itself. They became even more difficult to watch -- not because there weren’t or aren’t still stories to tell in the subgenre, but like the civil rights-era drama, how many more times can we draw from that well? Where are all the stories of people who get out and go back to try and change things? Where are all the stories of people who got out, left and don’t want to look back but find themselves having to do so? Where are all the stories of people who are either making the best of a bad situation or orchestrating change within that situation? Where are all the stories of people who come in, try to help and have to earn the trust of those they are trying to help? Where are all the stories of people who don’t want their kind of help but want to find some way to figure it out on their own?

It’s about variety. How is it that Hollywood is more comfortable with civil rights-era movies, racial dramas and movies about struggling than “middle ground” black movies about overcoming, succeeding and trying to live life? It’s not that the so-called black stories will be any different, but the perspective will be. And that’s key.

Think Like a Man was that rare middle ground comedy. The fact that the movie featured a predominantly black cast and hit #1 at the box office is a great accomplishment, but it’s hardly a surprise. After all, Tyler Perry has already proved the existence of a ridiculously underserved market for such films – or at least his hotly criticized brand of them. Think Like a Man should show studio executives that Perry doesn’t hold a monopoly on that market.

In fact, this is a market yearning for more (and better) reflections of themselves as people navigating their way through life in an ever-changing world. Is it important that these reflections be black? Well, yes, no and yes.

Yes, because we’ve seen white reflections time and time again.

No, because this wasn’t a so-called black movie per se in terms of the storytelling or the universal themes presented within it. The only thing that made it a so-called black movie was the racial make-up of the cast.

Yes, because if this wasn’t a movie with a predominantly black cast, then it would have just been yet another standard vehicle with a bunch of marquee names who’ve had more than their fair share of leading roles but haven’t proven themselves capable of anything more than what we’ve sent them do time and time again to varying degrees of success. 

Because of the predominantly black cast, Think Like a Man was narrow-mindedly branded as an urban comedy and marketed primarily to black audiences as if there was nothing in the film that could be accessible to general audiences. Given its $33 million box office haul, crossover was quite significant because ultimately, it wasn’t just an “urban comedy”. It was a relationship comedy that should have been marketed as such.

The moniker of “urban comedy” holds very little appeal to me because the typical “urban comedy” is built on insider black jokes, standard plotlines, ghetto stereotypes and derivative characterizations. Behind that faulty marketing mindset, I was not all that interested in seeing the movie in the first place. I only went because a friend of mine wanted to. Target marketing isn’t going to appeal to everyone within that target, but such narrow-minded labels are actually counterproductive to the entire marketing process.

Distributors and theatre chains seem to have better understood the crossover potential of Think Like a Man. I checked the movie listings in three areas I’ve spent much of my life. I was raised in Denville, NJ, went to school in Glassboro, NJ and lived in Franklin, MA for nearly two years. Neither area is a hotbed of diversity, but all three had multiple showings of Think Like a Man.

And why not? While both Steve Harvey and fellow comedian Kevin Hart (who stars in the film) have huge followings in the Black community, they also have greater crossover appeal than they or that crossover audience is given credit for. They make their black/white jokes, but their comedy is also based on their lives and their families – which I don’t recall being a racial thing.

Beyond Harvey and Hart, take a look at the part of the ensemble itself –Taraji P. Henson, Jerry Ferrara, Michael Ealy, Meagan Good, Regina Hall and Gabrielle Union are hardly unknowns. They may not be marquee names like Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry, but they are certainly name actors and actresses who have achieved some level of crossover success.

Hell, Henson is an Oscar nominee (as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2009).

Crossover.

Ferrara spent eight seasons as Turtle on HBO’s Entourage.

Crossover.

Ealy starred in Showtime’s Sleeper Cell in 2007. He has recurred on ABC’s Flash Forward (2009-2010), CBS’s The Good Wife (2010-2011) and HBO’s Californication (2011). This summer he’ll be a co-lead on USA Network’s upcoming Common Law.

Crossover. Crossover. Crossover.

With these names attached and the main plot revolving around the enduring battle of the sexes, what is so surprising about the film’s success? If it is because the expectations for the film were lower on account of it being a so-called black film, then shame on Hollywood.

Clearly, audiences saw the film as more than just an “urban comedy” with “urban actors”. As a former marketer, we think we know so much about the world’s consumer base. As a former marketer, it’s quite satisfying to see that marketers still have a lot to learn about that ever-changing consumer base.

For a group of people who are supposedly so much more evolved and all-knowing than consumers who spend money they don’t have on shit they don’t need, they sure as hell hold on to increasingly more outdated targeting methodologies. The campaigns may be cutting edge and creative, but the mode of targeting clearly is not.

It makes me wonder how much more successful other movies with predominantly black casts would have been had the marketing not been executed with the cast’s skin color in mind. I then have to wonder how many more films with predominantly black casts would have been produced, which makes me wonder how many more stories would have been told. From those stories, how much more understanding would we have of one another? And what if that understanding somehow eases tensions between the races?

It’s a stretch. It’s idealistic thinking. But who’s to say it can’t happen because of a much-needed evolution in a so-called black movie’s target marketing? 


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