Box Office Round Up – January 13 – 15, 2016


Get behind the numbers of last week’s box office! This week, Chris Neumer investigates whether Hidden Figures is the box office juggernaut it is purported to be and why, even if it is, this doesn’t let Hollywood off the hook for its lack of diversity.

by Chris Neumer

For the last two weeks, entertainment writers have been tripping over themselves to laud the film Hidden Figures. For the last year, Hollywood has been dealing with a major PR crisis surrounding its almost complete and total lack of films with non-Denzel, black leads.* This problem has been around since the first studio, Nestor Studios, opened in Hollywood in 1911, but the PR issue has really only been present since January of 2016 when the #HollywoodSoWhite hashtag went viral.

* I had originally used the term ‘African-American’ in place of ‘black’, but I realized that the problem is not one of geography, but of color. Born and raised in London, England, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Idris Elba are not African-Americans; they are black. And the problem is that Hollywood’s releases, as the hashtag suggests, are filled with white people.  Charlize Theron is from Africa… but I don’t think anyone looks at her as the solution to this problem.

In the last year, the studios have been doing everything they can to release or obtain high-quality films starring black actors. I want to be clear, the studios are doing whatever they can to appease the angry masses and that is it. Having a black writer, producer or director is a great bonus for a film with black stars (See Birth of a Nation), but releasing a biopic of Ingrid Bergman that was written, produced and directed by people of color would not in anyway help the studios in this regard because Carey Mulligan or Michelle Williams would still end up being the face of the project.

So now that there are a handful of films in multiplexes starring black actors who haven’t previously been accused of gang rape (See Birth of a Nation), the studios PR machines have leapt into action.

Finally being able to write about a feel-good-story of Hollywood responding to the wishes of the masses and releasing movies about minorities, publications everywhere have begun to trumpet the accolades of Hidden Figures’ box office. The problem with this is that most writers are being completely disingenuous with their positivity. They have shelved objectivity and a path towards actual equality in favor of the perceived progress of Hidden Figures that isn’t actually progress.

Understanding the divisions between races—here specifically focusing on the relationship in the United States between African-Americans and the white majority—is an important task and not one that I am remotely ready to say I understand fully. However, one aspect of this complex relationship that I do understand well is the furor that certain groups of white people have towards Affirmative Action.

Boiling away a lot of fat, affirmative action is a policy that was enacted to help African-Americans and other minorities rise up the ladder in areas of employment or scholarly pursuit where they might not otherwise have had any historical advantages. A lot of white people dislike affirmative action because they feel that it rewards an inexperienced or undesirable candidate above a qualified white candidate. Reverse discrimination if you will. It’s the same guiding principle behind the conservative suggestion that there be a White History Month.

But what is lost in this belly-aching is that Affirmative-Action is not designed to bring white people down, but rather to bring minorities up! It is broadening the minds, horizons and eyes of the people in power, much the way The Rooney Rule does in football.

In short, the reason that the white people who don’t like Affirmative Action don’t like it is because they feel that they are getting fucked over. While it might seem insane to suggest that there are large swatches of white people who feel that minorities have more privileges than they do, it is actually true. (I’m not sure whether that constitutes someone ‘checking his/her privilege’ or not; I could be potentially swayed either way).

With this in mind, the important part of journalists writing about Affirmative Actions and race relations in general is not to spew falsehoods and bullshit. People can smell bullshit a mile away and it doesn’t do anything good for anyone.

Last week, the estimates showed that Hidden Figures came in just below Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Rogue One). The two were close, but Rogue One was ahead by a couple hundred thousand dollars. The New York Times then ran a headline that read: “’Hidden Figures’ Ties ‘Rogue One’ at Box Office.”  I’ve been writing about the Hollywood box office for a little more than two years now and I can’t recall another article anywhere that has made mention of a tie… especially when the movies were separated by a couple hundred thousand dollars.

In April of 2016, Melissa McCarthy’s film, The Boss, was released and estimates had it beating Batman V. Superman by just $55,000. On the basis of this, The New York Times ran an article on it with a headline that read: “McCarthy is The Boss at the North American Box Office.”  No mention of a tie anywhere.

When the actuals came out and Hidden Figures ended up beating Rogue One by a couple hundred thousand dollars, the ‘tied’ headlines were quickly replaced with headlines discussing how Hidden Figures took down Star Wars.

This week, Hidden Figures remained atop the box office for a second weekend in a row. Good Morning America said that its box office was ‘soaring to new heights’, The Ringer investigated why “Audiences are flocking to Hidden Figures” and Essence wrote of how Hidden Figures, “By beating back some heavy-hitters, … is becoming the little-movie-that-could and one of the biggest breakouts of the awards seasons”.

And here’s the truth: Hidden Figures’ $22.8 million total during its opening weekend was the 8th lowest total for a #1 movie at the box office in the last year. Its $20 million total this last weekend was the 5th lowest total for a #1 movie at the box office in the last year. In short, a $22 or $20 million box office kind of sucks.

So, sure, Hidden Figures has, like Captain America: Civil War, taken two consecutive box office titles, but, to date, it has barely made half the money ($75 million) that Captain America: Civil War made on its first day.

There is nothing to sneeze at with Hidden Figures. It is an incredibly well made movie starring African-American women that has already turned a profit at the North American box office. And that’s great!

What’s problematic is the fact that Hollywood hasn’t changed its modus operandi for films with black leads one bit. In fact, they might have gotten worse. Consider:

  • Fox spent next to no money on this; Hidden Figures’ budget was $25 million.
  • This project only was green lit because of the negative response to the 2015 Oscar backlash. Yes, it’s great that it was going to be made, but it was rushed beyond belief in order to be ready for the 2016 Oscars. Co-star Jim Parsons was cast almost a month after principal photography had already begun. Kevin Costner was cast March 1, 2016 and shooting began a week later.  Star Taraji P. Henson was cast about a month before filming started.
  • Pharrell Williams is credited as being a producer on the film—separate of his music duties—and has done numerous interviews to that effect. Curiously absent though in these articles is the fact that he wasn’t involved in any aspect of raising financing, casting or shooting, as he, like Parsons, was brought on more than a month after principal photography had begun. It makes me wonder, what does a producer actually do when brought on after principal photography is winding down or done?
  • And finally, like most movies with black leads, Hidden Figures was only released in 2,446 theaters for its opening weekend. It didn’t cross into the truly mainstream (3,000 theaters) until after it had proved it had an audience, something Underworld 5 never had to do.

I appreciate that Hidden Figures is one of the first mainstream movies in a while to have all black, all female leads, but I don’t think that that is enough to change the way I report on the box office. Here’s hoping that Hidden Figures’ success relative to its budget definitely makes it that much more likely that studios will green light similar types of movies in the future.  But don’t let the studios off the hook yet; they haven’t done anything especially different yet that is worth praising.

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