If Hollywood Continues to Snub Africa, The Movie Industry Could be Missing Out on a Big Opportunity

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It has been 13 years since Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made history on the Oscar stage, taking home statues for Best Actress and Best Actor. In her acceptance speech, Berry — the first black woman to win the category — proclaimed that the “door has been opened” for other deserving actresses of color to win the honor. History has proven this to be an overstatement. Only 10 black actresses have been nominated in the leading role category, and Berry is still the only winner. There’s no hope that will change at the 87th Academy Awards this Sunday — no people of color are nominated for acting.

Hollywood has consistently snubbed minority actors and actresses. Some movie studios justify their diversity problem with economic arguments: In a leaked e-mail to Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton, an unnamed producer warned against casting Washington in films that would be marketed overseas: “I believe that the international motion picture audience is racist — in general, pictures with an African American lead don’t play well overseas.” Such judgments reveal Hollywood’s outdated mindset and ignore the rapidly changing demographics and tastes of international moviegoers. Africa, in particular, has remained a perennial blind spot, threatening to become a missed business opportunity for Hollywood. Movie watching is growing rapidly in several African nations, and there is evidence that black leads attract the attention of that growing audience and others.

International moviegoers deliver nearly 70 percent of the industry’s business today, with nearly a third of that global box office coming from Asia — especially China, Japan and India. The industry is courting that audience by producing high-tech films that wow on Asia’s growing number of 3D movie screens , and distributing more films with Asian characters and settings. “Life of Pi,” the 2012 film about a shipwrecked Indian boy, shocked movie executives by earning nearly 80 percent of its sales in foreign markets. South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee was cast in the 2014 movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which grossed $42 million in its opening weekends in East Asia, more than half of its total foreign opening weekend sales . Now, when industry decision-makers look beyond U.S. shores, their first question is, “Can this sell in China?”

But that view is short-sighted. Movie-watching in African nations like Nigeria , Ghana and South Africa has exploded in recent years, alongside a rapidly growing middle class hungry for entertainment that reflects local perspectives and phenotypes. Nigeria’s film industry, dubbed Nollywood, is already home to the world’s third-most-valuable movie industry, worth more than $500 million and bested only by Hollywood and India’s Bollywood industry.

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