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The Ugly Racism of International Film Distribution

The new, live-action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid is performing well in the U.S., but less so overseas. This Deadline article explains a disturbing trend of negative “review bombing” in certain international markets.

And yeah, it’s because the star is black.

One of the things that pretty much everybody involved in international film distribution knows, but for some reason doesn’t get covered (much) in the press, is that black stars do not “travel” for international financing.

I experienced this first hand when I was trying to get the feature film made of my sci-fi short, Sky Fighter, before Covid.

We were going to use the “foreign sales model,” where you package the film with a director (me) and stars, and pre-sell the rights at a film market (Cannes, AFM, et al.) to local distributors from around the world, and use that money to fund the film.

I asked about some black stars I really loved and was told, pretty much as casually as I am telling you now, that international audiences tend to be racist, so black stars don’t really work for their financing model, certainly not as well as white ones. (Of course there are exceptions.)

Was I shocked? A little bit. But not really.

A lot of these countries just don’t have a lot of black people, and thus a lot of experience with them culturally, and therefore interest in seeing their faces and stories.

I’m sure there’s a continuum of there between simple disinterest and unfamiliarity on the one hand, and outright racism on the other.

If Disney can’t overcome this inherent prejudice? Well, it’s a depressing state of affairs.

I really don’t know what else to say, as I’m already bracing myself for the fact that this column might be discovered by trolls and then I have to deal with their harassment.

Of course there are many subtleties and important arguments that could and should be made against racism that I’m not taking the time to make, so I might get criticism for that, too.

So much fun! As a filmmaker, all I want is to make the best possible movie.

And as a human being, all I want is to live in a world without racism and hate.

Good luck!

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Robert Knaus
Robert Knaus
31 may 2023

Black Panther made half of its $1.3 billion gross overseas.

Maybe the new Little Mermaid is just a lousy, joyless, visually ugly remake of a beloved animated classic, and audiences don't want to see it...?

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