History tends to repeat itself. Yet despite so many examples, we’re still surprised by the strong performance of films that reach minority audiences. And “Hustlers,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu, is the latest illustration.
The film is an example of a story about strong and diverse characters, written and directed by a woman, and filled with stars that are inclusive of many different backgrounds. Though it never reached No. 1 at the box office, its $33 million opening shocked Hollywood and set records for its distributor and stars. A month after its release, the $20 million film — cheap by Hollywood standards — is likely on its way to make over $100 million domestically. Any studio would take those kinds of returns.
So why is the industry still surprised when these films become box office successes? The surprise shows the industry still has a long way to go in terms of learning about films with diverse casts. It’s quite a mistake — and of course very offensive — to pretend that films with minority actors, characters or storylines only appeal to minorities. Most analytics inherently measure the world in a macro way, looking at general trends or broad segmentation while missing the dynamics and nuances of minority audiences in particular. In the industry’s defense, as learning does slowly improve on a given issue, digital changes and media fragmentation are also occurring so quickly that it further complicates things.
When forecasts for “Hustlers” came out in July, the film was only predicted to open with $13 million. As its release neared, forecasts climbed to $24 million. In political polling, if a pollster is off by 1 or 2 percentage points, they can be ridiculed. And yet, box office tracking is still sometimes wildly off.
When Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” came out in 2005, Hollywood was shocked about this little film that “came out of nowhere” and opened at No. 1. Of course, while Hollywood may have been surprised, to many African Americans, Perry was already a household name. While everyone knew “Black Panther” would be big, no one knew it’d be that big. “Girls Trip,” “Batteries Not Included” and “Crazy Rich Asians” all have similar stories.
Analysts often talk about big buckets of people as though they are the same, be they African Americans, Asian Americans, suburban women or the classically overused “millennials.” Of course, any of these groups are quite diverse within themselves, but we often analyze or talk about them as though they’re not.
And yet, success often requires a very small percentage of the country in the modern day. While we’re obsessed with what most people think or do, for “Hustlers” to break the records it did, it only needed to sell 3 to 4 million tickets. That would equal about 1 percent of the country watching it opening weekend.
This reality is seen beyond film. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked politics by upsetting a long-term incumbent in a Democratic primary in 2018. No one seemed to see it coming. But, in a district of almost 700,000 people, she needed less than 17,000 of them to win.
There are so many cases of power in small numbers. In a fragmented media world where content does not need to be for everyone, our obsession with macro-level data tends to miss the meaningful nuance and diversity of audiences.
Yet, a seemingly contradictory problem is also true. Many of these films are often labeled as “minority films.”
While it’s theoretically true that a film like “Love Simon” could be a success by only appealing to LGBTQ viewers, that’s of course not the reality. In other words, “Black Panther” or “Crazy Rich Asians” became such hits because, beyond reaching a core audience that is underserved, they also appealed to all kinds of people. For example, a plurality of opening weekend viewers for “Crazy Rich Asians” were not Asian but white.
These realities and challenges will only continue as more media fragmentation occurs. With Apple, Disney and others getting into the streaming game, there will be more content ― and audience data ― than ever. While this should be good news in that it should mean more diversity in content, it may also mean that some audiences could actually encounter less diversity.
In the days of four television channels and one-screen movie theaters, the downside was a lack of content, especially in regards to diversity. But, when these shows or films did cover diverse topics, much of the country would be watching.
Now, there may be more diverse content, but most films or television shows are now only watched by a smaller share of viewers. Be it an algorithm on Netflix, Disney+, or alike, there are many questions to be asked about what these entertainment and content algorithms mean for society, longer term.
If you only like watching Rambo movies, for example, many may argue there’s nothing wrong with getting content relevant to your interests. But, we’ve seen the negative effects of the echo chambers of political Twitter. The question is not just how much diverse content we have, but also who is watching it. The role of the algorithm in shaping society is still in its early days.
Films like “Hustlers” should be helpful reminders to prompt studios to make more such content. But until we stop being surprised by the success of such films, we likely have a long way to go.