Black-oriented films can be highly profitable when marketed to all audiences, study finds

April 27, 2018, University of Pennsylvania
Black-oriented films can be highly profitable when marketed to all audiences, study finds
Credit: University of Pennsylvania

Despite the persistent notion in Hollywood that films starring people of color aren't marketable to a broad audience, the success of Black Panther—a Marvel movie starring a Black superhero and with an almost entirely Black cast—provides a clear counterexample, having grossed $1.3 billion worldwide.

New research from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University offers insight into why the success of Black Panther may not be an outlier. Published April 26 in the Journal of Advertising Research, the study surveyed 1,900 White and Black adolescents ages 14-17 about their movie preferences. The study found that Black adolescents perceived Black-oriented content as being targeted at them and that, surprisingly, White adolescents also felt that Black-oriented content was "for them."

"I think this study is really timely," says senior author and Annenberg School Senior Research Scientist Amy Bleakley, "because it reinforces what we're seeing right now with films like Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time; showcasing characters of color is not negatively affecting the bottom line, and in addition to being culturally beneficial, may prove to be financially so as well."

In previous research on how content affects teens, Bleakley and her co-authors Morgan Ellithorpe (Michigan State University) and Michael Hennessey (University of Pennsylvania), noticed that many studies only used media that were marketed to a broad , thereby seemingly omitting Black-oriented content and including instead movies and television starring mostly white characters. They were inspired to fill that gap by designing studies that purposefully included Black-oriented content alongside other films when examining how exposure to risk media content affected adolescents' offline risk behaviors.

For the study, the researchers selected roughly 30 mainstream movies (pulled from Variety's top 30-grossing films of 2014) and 30 Black-oriented movies—defined as those with Black actors playing at least 50% of the main characters and/or having a strong narrative theme of race, racism, or Black culture—and asked Black adolescents and White adolescents to answer questions about their perceptions of these movies.

While Black adolescents seemed aware that Black-oriented movies were targeted toward Black audiences and mainstream movies were targeted more broadly toward all audiences, White adolescents were not. In fact, White adolescents were just as likely to report a Black-oriented movie as being for all audiences as they were a mainstream movie.

"Media shouldn't be diverse for diversity's sake, like with the tokenism and stereotypical 'representation' of the past," Ellithorpe says. "Instead, if diverse is to be increased—which our study and the recent worldwide success of Black Panther suggest is a good idea—it needs to depict minority characters in a way that is true and meaningful."

The researchers are hopeful that this study points to the broader potential success of authentic, diverse media that is not watered down or whitewashed. Just as predominately starring white characters have been marketed to all audiences, so can be media centering characters of color.

"We are really excited about this study," Bleakley says, "because we think the results bode well for the future of media production. The results point toward an opportunity for successfully marketing films with diverse casts and inclusive storylines to wider audiences."

Explore further: Why it's so important for kids to see diverse TV and movie characters

More information: Morgan E. Ellithorpe et al, Adolescent Perceptions of Black-Oriented Media: "The Day Beyoncé Turned Black", Journal of Advertising Research (2018). DOI: 10.2501/JAR-2018-017

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4 comments

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JamesG
5 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2018
This is proof that, no matter what you hear on the news, MOST people aren't racist. All my friends who are white loved the Black Panther movie. The acting is what people see, not the color of the actor's skin.
julianpenrod
1 / 5 (2) Apr 27, 2018
Among other things, saying "Black Panther" succeeded indicates that black movies necessarily have potential as money makers is flawed for considering only one example, that example also being highly touted, having a curiosity influence of seeing a black movie by Marvel and also for being part of the "Infinity War" Marvel storyline.
Talking about grosses worldwide, too, invokes that, maybe, success comes from non white audiences enjoying being able to spit in whites' faces by giving the movie such profits, rather than being so enjoyable.
A crucial facet, too, young whites so attracted to movies with blacks in them. It seems likely it's not black imitation of whites that attracts them, but, rather, their own interest in imitating blacks or appreciating what blacks like.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Apr 27, 2018
I'm 63, white. I enjoyed it mainly for the story. Didn't hardly even notice if it was mostly a black cast. I also enjoyed the comic books in the 60's and 70's and was pleased to see a movie finally come out.

BTW, JP. You sound pretty upset by the whole thing...
Talking about grosses worldwide, too, invokes that, maybe, success comes from non white audiences enjoying being able to spit in whites' faces by giving the movie such profits, rather than being so enjoyable.

Makes you sound like a paranoid, disgruntled white guy (or girl)...

A crucial facet, too, young whites so attracted to movies with blacks in them. It seems likely it's not black imitation of whites that attracts them, but, rather, their own interest in imitating blacks or appreciating what blacks like.

Then explain all the 50's and 60's year old "white folks" in the theatre with me when I went to see it...

nrauhauser
5 / 5 (1) Apr 28, 2018
I'm with Whydening Gyre on at least some points - old white guy here.

I disagree about not noticing the cast - the whole movie was so pointedly African, and specifically addressed the nature of Wakana - a country that was never colonized. Only, Ethiopia among all African nations, has that distinction.

I'm very much looking forward to the Black Panther sequel.

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