A group of executives and educators gathered at the American Film Market on Wednesday for a panel centered on the challenges of securing international distribution for Black-themed content.
The premise of the conversation, titled “International Film Market: Consumption of Black Culture, Rejection of Black Stories,” was that while aspects of Black culture like dance, music and fashion have been warmly embraced around the globe, Black stories brought to life through film and TV projects have not been similarly received, or allowed to flourish to a similar extent.
Kyle Bowser, who serves as SVP of the NAACP’s Hollywood Bureau, led the conversation digging into this phenomenon — and offering up some ideas on how to address it — noting the vital role foreign investment raised up front can play in ensuring a project gets greenlighted.
Panelist Johnny Jones, who serves as Warner Bros Pictures’ Executive Director of Worldwide Marketing Content, noted that a primary challenge in securing international distribution for films made by and/or starring Black talent is the fact that show business is a business like any other, which is chasing the biggest return by “going after the largest common denominator,” giving the most support to the kinds of projects it has supported, and seen succeed, in the past.
Jones was joined on the panel by EbonyLife CEO Mo Abudu; Dr. Darnell Hunt, who serves as Dean of the Division of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA; HFPA board member Gabriel Lerman; and Liquid Soul CEO Tirrell D. Whittley. Each spoke to the need for studios to take a chance on Black stories of all kinds and to support them with proper marketing, thereby helping new stars and filmmakers from underrepresented communities to rise in their careers.
Abudu called for studios to do more than simply “[tick] the diversity box.”
“Stop being scared,” Whittley advised. “Step out and make a move. You have to know you’re doing the right thing for the right reason and expect results in the end.”
Whittley, Jones and Hunt also looked to dispel myths at the studio level, such as the notion that films with Black leads won’t do well overseas, noting the importance of having diverse voices in the executive suite, on both sides of the table. “White supremacy is real and works in many different ways,” Hunt said. “Some of it is unintentional, some of it is implicit bias, some of it is quite intentional. That’s why it’s so important to have diverse voices in executive suites making decisions.”
Throughout the AFM panel, there was also discussion of positive changes that have been made in entertainment, and factors that contribute to a sense of optimism about the future of the industry.
Hunt noted that there is a global demand for diverse stories — “a rainbow of people around the world” who want to see them.
“The marketplace is shifting fast enough that good stories will make it around the globe,” Whittley added. “Why? Because audiences are demanding it.”
Jones pointed out the recent contributions of streaming platforms in elevating stories from diverse communities, also discussing the ripple effect when a series like Netflix’s Squid Game breaks through as an unexpected phenomenon, which sees more projects of the sort get made. “A good businessperson realizes, ‘OK, to take advantage of this, we make sure we have a representative product that the vast majority of people around the world will consume,” he said.
Elsewhere in the conversation, Lerman was asked about reforms taking place within the embattled HFPA, following the revelation that came in May that the Golden Globes organization counted not one Black person amongst its membership. Bowser noted that the HFPA has struck a five-year deal with the NAACP for the “Reimagine Coalition” as part of its reforms, also asking about the potential for the addition of new Black HFPA members to contribute to enhanced international distribution for Black-themed films.
“I hope so,” Lerman said. “We are very happy that we have six new members that are Black, and obviously when we knew this that we were on the wrong path, we started to work to fix it. I have to say, this is a systemic issue. It’s not that we were not inviting Black journalists. It’s bigger than that, and I hope that one day someone will research into that.”
Lerman added that the HFPA has revised its rules, such that the group is now open to journalists from across the country, rather than just Southern California. Twenty-one new members have been added recently, and he hopes more will be introduced next year. (On Wednesday, the HFPA hired its first chief diversity officer.)
“We are conscious that … a Golden Globe nomination, even with all these attacks, is still very important in the career of an actor or director,” he said. “If you look back, I feel as a journalist, as a member, as a voter, we helped many careers in that sense. I hope these six new members that are Black will guide us, and show us the things that we were not looking at before.”
The ultimate takeaway from the panel was perhaps best expressed by Hunt. “Your daddy’s Hollywood doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “We’re not going back to that.”