Why Are Black-and-White Movies in Exile? Blame the Streamers (Column)

18 March 2023

The last few cycles of Oscar season provided a jolt to the kind of filmmaking made on the margins of Hollywood, or outside of its boundaries altogether. If a Korean-language social thriller (“Parasite”), a poetic road-trip movie mostly populated by non-actors (“Nomadland”), and a zany comedy about an estranged Asian American (you know the one) can all win Best Picture, prior assumptions about movies with limited appeal have no foundation in reality.

Yet one stigma continues to linger. Black-and-white movies remain the aesthetic decision the market continues to reject.

I gravitated toward this issue while eying the lineup for the Museum of Moving Image’s First Look festival in Queens, which surveys a daring selection of recent sleeper hits from the festival circuit. While many of the bigger Sundance movies failed to sell because they cost too much, First Look illustrates the other end of the equation: These lower-profile selections, including several Sundance premieres, remain unsold for reasons that have stem from the presumption of limited appeal. That includes two major black-and-white movies, opening-night selection “Fremont” and “Mami Wata.”

I was a fan of “Fremont” back at Sundance, where it screened in the NEXT section and offered a delectable throwback to early Jim Jarmusch through a fresh lens. Iranian-born director Babak Jalali’s melancholic comedy follows a female Afghan translator (Anaita Wali Zada) who immigrates to California and gets a job in a fortune cookie factory. The movie has a sweet, poignant quality as its young protagonist attempts to find a measure of companionship in an alienated American landscape, and she eventually forges an unusual bond with a car mechanic (Jeremy Allen White of “The Bear”).

Shot on the cheap with only a modicum of star power (White appears towards the end), “Fremont” might not be an obvious commercial bet but it’s strong enough to deserve buyers’ attention. It’s an emotional story, entertaining, and hits a representational milestone with an immigrant experience we’ve never seen at the movies. “Fremont” remains unsold.

While in town for the movie’s First Look premiere, Jalali told me that he was given an unequivocal denial for one reason. “On the distribution front, the bigger ones all said they allegedly ‘loved’ the film, but it boiled down to the black-and-white problem,” he said. “So they didn’t make offers.” This for a movie represented by CAA, the sort of power player that prides itself on getting results.

The same issue faces “Mami Wata,” C.J. Obasi’s Nigerian folklore drama about two sisters in a village who face a crossroads when their mother’s connection to a water goddess protecting their community is called into question. It’s a gorgeous, entrancing piece of filmmaking that often seems as if it has been piped in from another dimension; so far, it’s also trapped there. The distribution challenge for “Mami Wata” is compounded by another lingering stigma — foreign language — which continues to frighten U.S. buyers despite the efforts of international cinema warriors like Alfonso Cuarón and Bong Joon-ho who fight for the conviction that subtitled movies deserve an audience.

Black-and-white filmmaking has no such public defenders. Many distributors’ output deals for their pay 1 windows exclude black-and-white movies, which means that buyers don’t have much incentive to consider them. That’s why you’re unlikely to find much in the way of contemporary black-and-white movies on Hulu, which has output deals with Neon, Bleecker Street, and Roadside Attractions, among others. (Good luck finding Guillermo del Toro’s black-and-white “Nightmare Alley” on Hulu; you have to dig through the special features to find it.)

There’s a lot of division over whether audience metrics prove a resistance to black-and-white movies, or if it’s just an unchecked assumption. Streaming executives told me they see “muted engagement” for black-and-white content; others say it depends on positioning. Pablo Larraín’s upcoming Netflix project “El Conde,” for example, uses black-and-white as a throwback to German Expressionism to frame its vision of Augusto Pinochet as a vampire dictator. According to Larráin’s producer and brother Juan De Dios Larráin, Netflix supported the idea from the start. “Audiences expect arthouse films when they’re in black-and-white, but it is only a first impression,” he said. “Sometimes they can be very accessible stories.”

“C’mon C’mon”


In another recent example, A24 got Mike Mills’ 2021 black-and-white drama “C’mon C’mon” onto Showtime because it carved out a handful of optional slots for black-and-white movies in its output deal. It’s a flawed solution: It creates a greater degree of sensitivity around the black-and-white issue and suggests it’s a problem rarely worth the risk. Why waste the slot?

Some of this stigma stems from a larger issue within film history. A few months ago, I wrote about the uncertain future facing Turner Classic Movies, a brand within the Warner Bros. Discovery empire tasked with generating audience enthusiasm for a niche that most executives assume can’t be scaled. The hesitancy over black-and-white storytelling operates as an extension of that same stigmatization of so-called “classic films.” It’s not a monolithic category, but it’s treated as such: Anything that falls into it doesn’t get a real chance.

The creative ramifications are staggering. Imagine if the marketplace concerns of 1960 forced Alfred Hitchcock to make “Psycho” in color. Taking that thought a step further, consider all the artistic ambition of black-and-white storytelling that filmmakers have tabled because no one wants to release it.

In a data-driven economy, content is often defined by assessments of what viewers want… but audiences can be fickle and unpredictable. Give them a play button on something that looks cool, exciting, a little different, and they might give it a shot. That’s where black-and-white stands a better chance than streamers may realize.

These days, viewers cycle through thumbnails on their streamer of choice until a single enticing image catches their eye. Drain the color out of the frame and it might stand out a little more. That’s the case more producers and sales agents need to make for black-and-white projects. Believe me: “Fremont” and “Mami Wata” are worth your time, and they’re not alone.

As usual, I encourage reader feedback on this week’s column, from industry insiders and beyond: [email protected]

Check out earlier columns here

Last week’s column on the potential of low-budget Oscar campaigns, where I estimated that a guerrilla campaign could cost as little as $150,000, elicited a number of compelling responses. Here are two of them.

“Very astute article. I do think you’re missing some significant costs though – the tickets, tables, travel and glam if you get anything along the way. The bonuses for the PR consultants. … You have to talk about pre-and post nom, but those post-nom costs can start in November with the Gothams. And ‘To Leslie’ had Spirit costs sunk before it got the Oscar nom. You have to have money in hand if you succeed even slightly in getting any noms for any recognized award with a must-attend ceremony. Not to mention big costs for the Oscars themselves – you have to have the money raised. I think you have to have like $50-100,000 as a slush fund ready for tables/tickets/travel/glam. Spirits and Gothams are on opposite coasts. Inevitably a working actor will have to be flown somewhere for something, even just screenings.”
—Anonymous distributor

“Let’s sort of break down for one full day of work here with an indie eye — car, $1,000, glam/stying (depending on talent) $2,000-4,000, hotel and per diem in New York, $1,000-1,500 per day; LA might be $600 (this is for basic rooms, tax and per diem. Flights generally are all business. European flights are all $10-12,000. In the U.S., they’re around $2,5000. Some may require guests. So think about that cost for every fest and separate event – Telluride, Toronto, NYFF, LA trip, release trip to NY or LA, regional festivals. And many people have family and children so they ‘can’t just stay somewhere for a month or six months.’ They have to go back and forth. If you think about ‘To Leslie’ making $23,000, it clearly does not add up.”
—Anonymous publicist

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