by Eric Huffman
Raise your hand if you remember what movie took home the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. Now keep your hand up if you saw that movie. Outside of a small circle of self-proclaimed film geeks, the number of hands that remain raised are likely to only be a few.
Last year’s Best Picture winner was Moonlight, a character-driven drama about a young black man growing up in a Miami ghetto while struggling with the reality of being gay. It checks off the usual boxes that most have come to expect from films during awards season: low budget, intimate, focused on a marginalized group or a specific historic event, and “artsy.” It was never meant to be the next big franchise. That it won the biggest prize of the night was a magnificent achievement in an arena where people of color have hardly been celebrated, let alone given substantial opportunities to showcase their talents (outside of music).
And it’s that achievement that makes the 4 nominations for Get Out, including one for Best Picture, one of the biggest anomalies in modern cinematic history. A horror film with a black protagonist, a first-time black director, a February release and an underlying theme that condemns white liberal racism, should have been a cult classic at best. However, it continues to defy the odds almost a year after its release. Along with Best Picture, the film is nominated for Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Best Director (Jordan Peele) and Best Original Screenplay (Peele). This won’t be a piece exploring the film’s merits or themes, but it will address the film industry, or rather the executives who ultimately decide which films are produced. Hollywood has no more excuses to not greenlight black films.
The success of Get Out shatters all the ones we’ve heard for decades.
Get Out grossed $254.6 million at the worldwide box office. That number may increase as theater chains start screening Best Picture nominees in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, but it doesn’t mean anything without context and because this industry is driven by the bottom line, it’s important to examine this relative to other films.
Starting in-house, the film was co-produced by Blumhouse Pictures, a studio that has gained a strong reputation for finding gems among low-budget films (mostly horror) and turning them into massive box office hits (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister, The Purge, Unfriended and...Whiplash, yes really). Get Out wasn’t the studio’s first hit of 2017. Just a month prior, Split, from long-time scapegoat M. Night Shyamalan, enjoyed massive critical and commercial success. While Split ultimately saw more money from the worldwide box-office ($278 million), Get Out outperformed it domestically by almost $40 million. In fact, among domestic releases, Get Out is not only the all-time highest grossing film from Blumhouse Pictures, it was the third highest-grossing film from distributor Universal Pictures last year. The two films ahead of it were Despicable Me 3 and The Fate of the Furious, both of which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. Get Out connected with American audiences better than studio tentpoles like Fifty Shades Darker and The Mummy, the latter of which performed so poorly that Universal effectively canceled their plans of a shared cinematic universe.
And it isn’t just a question of the box-office gross, but also whether or not a film makes a profit. Get Out did that better than any film released in 2017. Yes, it only had a production budget of $4.5 million, but making money for a studio is what ultimately matters to the executives making all the decisions. Compare this to some of the high profile bombs of 2017. Ghost in the Shell grossed $169 million against a $110 million budget, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword only made $148 million against a $175 million budget, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets made $225 million against a budget of $180 million, Blade Runner 2049 pulled in $260 million with a $150-180 million budget and Justice League peaked at $655 million, but it cost $300 million to make. Excluding the popularity of superheroes, audiences were left to choose a movie with a white actress playing a Japanese robot, another medieval movie with a white lead, a sci-fi epic starring a supermodel and a sequel to a box office bomb from the 80’s. In a way, these losses serve as a referendum on the issue of studios spending too much money on movies. Studios need franchises that work, but the argument that audiences won’t buy into films with black leads rings hollow following a year where Daniel Kaluuya resonated with audiences more than Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford.
But surely Get Out’s success shouldn’t be compared to blockbusters, right?
Horror releases at the 2017 box-office ranged from disastrous (A Cure For Wellness, $26 million against a $40 million budget), to disappointing (Alien: Covenant, $240 million vs. $97 million, much less than its predecessor _Prometheus), to simply not being as good (Jigsaw, the latest installment in the Saw franchise, which made $102 million against $10 million). If the movie wasn’t named It ($700 million against $35 million), Get Out put it to shame. To be fair to the studios who push out horror movies every year, they usually bank on them being cheap. However, there is another component to Get Out’s success that must be noted, positive word of mouth. Rotten Tomatoes always finds a way to be blamed for audiences not supporting movies, but the critics really made it known that Get Out sat in another class compared to the rest of the genre last year, as it currently sits at 99% on the Tomatometer, with 297 positive reviews out of 300. The film It is at 85%, Alien: Covenant at 66%, A Cure For Wellness at 44% and Jigsaw at 34%. And if movie critics aren’t your trusted source for a general consensus, Cinemascore, the most trusted source for audience reactions, grades these movies similarly (although there was a much kinder reaction to Jigsaw).
Returning to where this piece began, studios can now look at Get Out’s recognition from the Academy as validation that previously held beliefs were shortsighted. Yes, last year’s Best Picture nominees included two films featuring black leads. While many appreciated this in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which is merely a symptom of an industry-wide problem, one of those films was a historical drama (Hidden Figures) and the other was a period drama (Fences). Both were critical and commercial successes, but they were also typical for the types of black films studios usually have confidence in, not to mention they both starred Academy Award winners and nominees.
Hidden Figures and Fences came as surprises considering the buzz around another film from 2016, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. In his directorial debut, Parker told the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, one many people believed would never get the backing of a studio. After winning the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it later received the largest studio deal in the festival’s history, the idea that it could open the floodgates for more black films was one that many clinged to. However, when controversy hit the news surrounding an alleged rape committed by Parker and the film’s co-writer, it cast an inescapable shadow over the film. And when the critical consensus was that the film was passable at best, that ultimately hurt its box-office gross and killed its awards chances. Similar disappointments, though not due to legal controversies, were met with the 2012 historical film Red Tails, a movie produced by Lucasfilm about the Tuskegee Airmen, and 2013’s After Earth, a big-budget science fiction adventure from M. Night Shyamalan and starring Will Smith. Both potentially meant something special for studio films with black leads, but both were critical and commercial failures. And when historical films can’t meet the mark, it’s hard to expect that much else will register.
So with Get Out being the first horror film in almost 20 years to be nominated for Best Picture, one of the best reviewed films of 2017, the highest grossing film in the history of Blumhouse Pictures and the most profitable film of the year, studios no longer have any excuse to not greenlight more black films. That doesn’t mean Sony has to put Trevante Rhodes in a $200 million film about werewolves. Some conventions are meant to keep studios in business, like not overspending on production costs. Others can be defied, like putting faith in black and brown faces to sell a good movie.
Columbia couldn’t sell people on a comedy with Scarlett Johansson (Rough Night), an Avenger, but Universal had no issues riding Tiffany Haddish to the bank in a similar movie (Girls Trip). And that happened in the same summer.