It was sad enough to find out that apparently North Korea could blackmail us into keeping a movie it doesn’t like out of theaters [at least initially]. (Though to be sure, I am looking forward to seeing Proletarian Youth Salute the Spirit of Dear Leader next Christmas — I’m told it’s going to get a 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) But this, from the Sony e-mail leaks, is even worse:
According to Radar, a producer, whose name was removed from the emails, sent the concerns to Sony Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton. In the emails, the producer suggested that Sony not cast black actors in films with an international market. “No, I am not saying The Equalizer should not have been made or that African-American actors should not have been used (I personally think Denzel is the best actor of his generation),” the producer stated in the email.” I believe that the international motion-picture audience is racist — in general, pictures with an African-American lead don’t play well overseas,” the producer wrote. “But Sony sometimes seems to disregard that a picture must work well internationally to both maximize returns and reduce risk, especially pics with decent-size budgets.”
Ironically, The Equalizer went on to make $191 million at theaters worldwide, and almost half of the ticket sales were international.
For a film with a $55 million budget, $191 million is not a horrifying performance by any means. It will have made money. But the movie underperformed abroad. A movie like Iron Man 3 can take twice its domestic gross in international box office; The Equalizer made less abroad than it did here.
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Now, maybe that’s not racism; maybe that’s just the kinds of roles that Denzel Washington plays. (The third Men in Black movie did very well abroad; Washington tends to do one-off pictures, not the kinds of tentpole franchise films that gross hundreds of millions in other countries.)
But it’s not implausible, either; we tend to think of racism as an American problem when in fact it’s a quite human problem that’s found all over the world. And if that producer is right, then the globalization of the film market would not only mean the problems I’ve complained about before — flat characters, dumbed-down dialogue, an increasing reliance on explosions and car chases that don’t need to be translated across cultures — but also importing the racial biases of foreigners to add to our own.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.
© 2014, Bloomberg News