This week Gower Street’s Senior Box Office Analyst Delphine Lievens wrote a guest column for the BFI FAN (Film Audience Network) newsletter. The column, entitled “Black British film at a crossroads”, considered systemic racism in British film culture and was timed to coincide with the ‘Who We Are.’ BFI takeover.

The BFI FAN newsletter, written and compiled by renowned UK film journalist Charles Gant, covers top new stories impacting the UK cinema sector each week, as well as providing box office results and upcoming independent releases. It is available to all UK cinema members of the BFI’s Film Audience Network. Cinemas looking to receive it can do so by joining their local Film Hub for free.

Who We Are.‘ is a week-long series of online events and film programmes, from July 13, designed to celebrate and spark debate around black British film, programmed by award-winning film exhibition company We Are Parable in collaboration with BFI. We Are Parable Co-Founder & Creative Director Anthony Andrews, recently presented an overview of BFI-commissioned research to assess the confidence levels of Black, Asian and other ethnic groups in relation to their White counterparts as they return to cinemas on Comscore’s recent UK webinar. The full findings of the research are available to download here.

Delphine’s full article is reproduced below with kind permission of the BFI.

This article first appeared in the BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) newsletter, published Thursday July 16, 2020:

Black British film at a crossroads

To mark this week’s ‘Who We Are.’ BFI takeover, Delphine Lievens reflects on the box office of Black British films

Last year, the release of BLUE STORY (Andrew Onwubolu aka Rapman) in UK cinemas made headlines for the wrong reasons. Both the press and some of the UK’s largest cinema chains carelessly assumed that violence in cinemas was spurred on by the film, despite any concrete proof. More recently, it feels like the world is waking up to racial inequality and we are beginning to take stock of how it permeates through aspects of British culture. The treatment of BLUE STORY is indicative of the systemic racism in British film culture, and we are at a turning point where we need to challenge that.

This week’s ‘Who We Are.’ takeover is exploring the current state of Black British film and looking to both the past and the future. I think a vital part of this discussion involves assessing the performance of these films at the box office. Using a selection of Black British films released between 2008-2019, I hope to pinpoint where successes have been, and where the industry may have let these films down. My selection incorporates all the films in We Are Parable’s curated collection on BFI Player that had a theatrical release in the past 12 years.

The first thing of note is that my selection criteria left me with just 16 films to assess. Only four grossed over £1 million at the box office, and seven made less than £100k. It’s evident that if you manage to secure theatrical distribution for your Black British film, the chances of a wide release are slim. Of course, limited P&A budgets from distributors determine how much films can expect to make at the box office, adding to the argument that there is no audience for Black British films and becoming a self-fulfilling cycle.

Looking at the disparity in box office results for these films led to questioning what sort of Black British film is ensured the chance of a wide release and box office success. The widest release of them all is the BFI Production Fund-backed A UNITED KINGDOM (Amma Asante), which opened in 427 sites, and grossed £2.54 million. It follows the same formula as many Black films that find success worldwide, a historic story of struggle and discrimination. However, BROTHERHOOD and ADULTHOOD (Noel Clarke) were actually the highest grossing of my selection, making £3.70 million and £3.35 million respectively.

Are films like A UNITED KINGDOM really bringing audiences what they are looking for from Black filmmakers? For many, cinema is a place of solace away from the hardships we might experience in our day-to-day lives. ADULTHOOD and BROTHERHOOD, along with BLUE STORY (not among We Are Parable’s selection of titles, but grossed a record breaking £4.50m) are speaking to the Black British experience without having to relay the trauma of historic racism in the UK. However, should we applaud films like A UNITED KINGDOM too? They explore our country’s history (and colonial past), and in this case allow us to see the work of a Black female filmmaker on the big screen.

In the struggle to get films funded and distributed, it seems that Black British filmmakers are confined to a set of proven criteria. They are not awarded the same freedoms to explore as vast a range of themes as other films in the market.

There was much more variety to be seen in the 11 titles that grossed less than £1 million. Richard Ayoade’s THE DOUBLE (which received backing from BFI Production Fund and Distribution Fund) is an ideal example of a Black British filmmaker creating with more freedom. Documentaries too, like John Akomfrah’s THE STUART HALL PROJECT (released by BFI Distribution) and Menelik Shabazz’s LOOKING FOR LOVE. All of these films had strong multiples (the conversion from opening weekend to lifetime gross), proving that word of mouth can be a valuable replacement for a strong marketing campaign.

Ironically, some of BLUE STORY’s impressive box office success can likely be attributed to all the press coverage it received last year. However, we have to question why these films are so often seen as a “risk” for distributors and exhibitors. The release of BLUE STORY into 311 sites, accompanied by a wide-reaching marketing campaign was a bold move by Paramount. It showed that a decent investment is often needed to make sure these films reach their intended audience. Additionally, it proves that in a challenging time for film studios, investing in local content is a viable way of bolstering box office returns.

The current Black Lives Matter movement feels like a turning point in British culture and I hope that our film output follows suit. Looking to future releases, there are only two upcoming Black British Films that have secured UK distribution: Aki Omoshaybi’s REAL, which will be released by Verve Pictures, and Yemi Bamiro’s documentary ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES, which has been picked up by Dartmouth Films. Additionally Reggie Yates’ PIRATES is currently in production with a distribution deal yet to be confirmed, as is the debut feature from Dionne Edwards, PRETTY RED DRESS. Both titles have been backed by the BFI Production Fund. In a world where the way we view content is rapidly changing, and the lines between TV and film begin to blur, it’s also worth noting that two films from Steve McQueen’s upcoming BBC series, SMALL AXE, were part of this year’s Cannes line-up too.