Hollywood's Views on Race May Be in for a Change

Q&A: Producer Joe Pichirallo on Marketing Black Films to White Audiences, Box-Office Success and the 'Bradley Effect'

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Is there a "Bradley Effect" when it comes to the box office?
'The Secret Life of Bees'
'The Secret Life of Bees'

For those perhaps not paying close attention to the presidential election, with Sen. Barack Obama ahead in every national poll, political pundits have been feverishly inserting the words "Bradley Effect" into articles and sound bites in an effort to ratchet up the election-eve drama.

The expression explains in racial terms the 1982 defeat of Tom Bradley, a black Democrat who was at the time the mayor of Los Angeles, by his white Republican rival, George Deukmejian, in their quest for the governorship of California: The theory goes that despite polls predicting a Bradley win, white voters pulled the lever for Mr. Deukmejian.

A quick look at Hollywood's box office results would seem to let some air out of the theory, at least when it comes to how Americans elect to entertain themselves: The success of two new films with largely black casts -- "The Secret Life of Bees" and the thriller "Lakeview Terrace" -- suggests that marketers' conventional wisdom about how race influences purchasing decisions may be in need of re-examination. Having served as a producer on both movies, Joe Pichirallo has gained a firsthand understanding of how Americans consider -- or ignore -- race.

Each film has over-performed, with "Lakeview Terrace" cresting $40 million domestically, having opened at No. 1 at the box office last month, and "The Secret Life of Bees" cruising past $20 million, having opened at No. 3.

Mr. Pichirallo oversees film for The Gold Co., a production venture headed by talent manager Eric Gold, whose clients include Jim Carrey and Ellen DeGeneres. But before joining The Gold Co., Mr. Pichirallo was head of feature film production and development for Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment. He's also been a senior executive at Fox Searchlight Pictures, where he oversaw "Antwone Fisher," and at Universal's Focus Features, where he supervised both "Hollywoodland" and "Something New."

Madison & Vine: Settle this for us: Is there a Bradley Effect at the box office, too?

Joe Pichirallo: Let me put it this way: The conventional wisdom of the Hollywood studios is that films that have primarily African-American themes or actors in them are not are not going to do well, because they don't do well overseas. And in the last few years, the rule of thumb is that 60% of box office is actually going to come from outside the U.S. So if you look at even the most successful films that cross over, like "Barbershop," its domestic gross was $70 million, but its foreign box office was, like, $1.2 million. ... So if [black films] get made, you're forced to do them at independent [movie] budget levels, on the theory that you have to make most of your revenue on the domestic side.

M&V: How does that affect how we portray black America on the big screen?

Mr. Pichirallo: If you're looking at something like "The Secret Life of Bees," on one level if you didn't know the business, you'd say, "Well, here's a best-selling novel. This should be made for the standard Hollywood budgets of $40 million, $50 million, $60 million." But the concern would be that you'll never hit those levels in box office, so you're immediately put into a situation of seeing it made in the $12 million range.

M&V: How soon did race enter the making and marketing of "The Secret Life of Bees"?

Mr. Pichirallo: You start thinking about it right off the bat. Who are going to be the leads? Are we going to be able to get people with name value to play those leads? ... We also knew we had two things going for us: The book was a best-seller for a very long time, and the book was not perceived as an exclusively African-American book. The underlying material had an existing appeal to a white audience.

M&V: And so "Bees" isn't behaving like a typical film with a black cast, is it?

Mr. Pichirallo: No. And let me just say something about the second weekend of the film, that shows it's playing both ways: In Los Angeles, at The Grove -- which couldn't be more of a white, upscale, affluent theater -- it out-grossed the Magic Johnson theater, which is the leading African-American theater in Los Angeles. And so that tells you right there that the movie is really playing. Most theaters aimed at predominantly whiter audiences actually held [onto their "Bees" audiences] better in the second weekend than those with African-American audiences. Seattle had just a 12% drop. Those are phenomenal holds for any kind of movie, and give indication that it's reaching a diverse audience.

M&V: What can we learn about Americans' racial attitudes from "Lakeview Terrace"?

Mr. Pichirallo: We knew we had to walk a fine line, because it's not often that the so-called bad guy in a movie is an African-American. Sam Jackson ultimately is terrorizing this interracial couple who lives next door to him. It's headed toward $40 million because white [audiences] went to see it, and we didn't get any real serious complaints from the African-American audience. They embraced the film and saw the film. The danger would have been that they would say, "You're holding up a negative stereotype."

M&V: So if all it takes is some forethought about making a movie that's relatable to everyone, why not make more money by making black films that appeal to white audiences, too?

Mr. Pichirallo: [Studios] don't want to restrict their gross, but when they sense that the material is not going to cross over -- and they may often be wrong about this -- they're not going to waste their money chasing an audience that they don't think is coming out. And that's when it gets to be circular: What is the chicken, and what is the egg? Are the audiences not responding because they're not marketing to them and so they're not turning out, or are they right that the audience is not finding it appealing, and so was never coming out?

M&V: We've talked about how the box office reveals the racial attitudes of moviegoers, but has the marketing of Sen. Barack Obama as a post-racial candidate changed anything about Hollywood's attitude toward the marketing of black films?

Mr. Pichirallo: You're going to see that as we get more sophisticated and evolved as a culture, we're going to have multicultural-themed movies that are going to cross over more. What we're tying to do is break conventional perception that if you have a black-focused story that it's only going to appeal to blacks and therefore you should only market to blacks.

M&V: Is the lesson, then, that film ghettos are bad for show business?

Mr. Pichirallo: I think we have to work hard from a cultural and social standpoint to break that, but from an economic standpoint it doesn't make any sense, either: You don't want to limit your audience. If you're going to limit your audience, you end up having to do the films for lower budgets, and therefore it gets harder to get those movies made, because some of the bigger actors won't do them.

M&V: So, what is the marketing lesson from Obama '08?

Mr. Pichirallo: The lesson is, Don't assume past performance dictates future results. Obama has not run as a "black" candidate. The world is changing. Our culture is changing. You have to change with it.