Ava DuVernay and Mainstreaming the Minority

By  · Published on September 10th, 2015

Paramount Pictures

It’s been quite a year for Ava DuVernay. After serving as everyone’s favorite Academy Award snub and living with Marvel Studios hiring rumors for several months – a challenge that has broken many men and women in our time – DuVernay has announced plans to put part of her indefatiguable energy into expanding her own distribution efforts. According to Variety, DuVernay will expand her own company – formerly known as the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement – into Array, a distributor focusing on giving new and minority voices in Hollywood a platform. Variety also notes that Array is already underway on several projects, including a Netflix collaboration on the family drama Mississippi Damned and the debut film Out of my Hand by Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Fukunaga.

There’s a lot of reasons to be excited about Array, so let’s make one thing perfectly clear: there should be no doubt in your mind that Ava DuVernay will follow through in her promise to identify, curate, and develop talented minority filmmakers. While her 2014 breakout hit Selma left no doubt of her talent behind the camera, she has also carried the burden of singularly representing both her race and her gender in Hollywood with aplomb. Throughout last season’s awards race controversy – and this year’s oh-so public negotiation with Marvel Studios over Black Panther – DuVernay has used her position of authority to speak out on social issues while still holding true to her own artistic pursuits. Many critics of forced diversity in film and television argue that real change comes from giving minorities the power to make their own stories; DuVernay is attempting to do just that, and this is the kind of endeavor we can and should all get behind.

But it’s still an uphill battle. According to the article, the company’s distribution model will include arthouse theaters and streaming platforms, indicating that Array is modeling itself after other prestige distributors. In this model, Array is banking on reaching a socially conscious audience who seek out new voices; the best possible scenario for DurVernay’s company would be to pick up a film that may be in award consideration come the end of the year. None of this is wrong, of course. This approach has allowed distributors like Focus Features and A24 to make artistic films year after year, even while the former was operating within the confines of NBCUniversal. The downside is only the audience size limitation. While this will help solidify Array with an art film following, it may lack the crossover appeal to expose DuVernay’s filmmakers to the mainstream. For all the revenue that streaming and home video bring in, box office is still what gets executives out of bed in the morning.

Fortunately, there’s another way: take a page from an unlikely source and follow in the footsteps of the faith-based films.

Despite a reputation as a niche subject matter within Hollywood, faith-based films had something of a coming out party in 2014. Every publication that covers the film industry – from Business Insider to our very own Film School Rejects – wrote at least one piece reflecting on the resurgence of movies catering to Christian audiences. And with 2012 survey data suggesting that there are over 246 million people who identify as Christian within the United States, it’s not a stretch to say the faith-based film is just starting to realize their full earning potential. This past weekend, The War Room shocked the world by unseating Straight Outta Compton — itself a surprise box office success – as the number on film in America. And this probably won’t be the last time this kind of commercial upset takes place.

For better or worse, the success of faith-based distributors has everything to do with their perceived lack of representation. In an opinion piece for the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year, producer Mark Joseph wrote about the way that these films offer audiences an opportunity to see themselves reflected on the screen. As Joseph writes, “(T)he alleged popularity of faith-based films is more accurately understood as the reaction of frustrated Americans who support these movies as a way to push back against faith-ignorant entertainment.” Joseph also goes on to highlight a handful of films and television series that seem to sidestep the issue of religion entirely, including film adaptations of overtly religious lives. As he sees it, Christian audiences are more likely to support films like God Is Not Dead because they will see their own self projected up on the screen.

Unlike other issue-driven films, faith-based films have also managed to gross incredible amounts of money by staying true to their core audience. Last year, TriStar Pictures – a subsidiary of Sony Pictures – spent a combined $32 million on three separate faith-based films: When the Game Stands Tall, Moms’ Night Out, and Heaven is for Real. The studio grossed $132 million in return. Similarly, Freestyle Releasing – an independent distributor who mixes religious films with genre fare – ushered the two million dollar God’s Not Dead into a $60 million box office windfall. As outlined by BoxOffice.com chief analyst Phil Contrino, the successful formula of these films is to focus on the parts of the country that feature a large religious population and let that passionate audience lift it to financial success.

And this is how diversity wins out. When there is a surfeit of demand not enough supply, independent parties – distributors, producers, and filmmakers – find themselves with a unique opportunity to connect to a larger audience than ever before. You can set aside your own feelings on the merit of faith-based films. For the moment, it doesn’t matter if they are sincere attempts at inclusion or snickering cash grabs by studio executives who recognize a competitive imbalance. These films, good or bad, are finding an audience so starved for representation that they will accept whatever studios have to offer to see themselves present on the screen; imagine what they could do with real talent behind the camera. In a country where a presidential candidate is cheered for criticizing anyone whose ethnic background differs from his own, DuVernay and her staff have a great opportunity to connect with audiences who are hungry for their own images and stories on screen. And maybe that means we finally have someone in a position of authority who will stop treating minority voices as part of the artistic periphery of the film industry and more as an indispensable part of its weekend gross.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)