Why MOONLIGHT Matters (It's Not Just Why You Think)

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Why MOONLIGHT Matters (It's Not Just Why You Think)

What's in the envelope? When it comes to Barry Jenkins' Moonlight it matters less than many think because regardless of the results at last night's Academy Awards, Moonlight already represented a watershed moment with the potential to trigger widespread change throughout the industry. Or at least to take away a standard argument from those who would wish to deny that change. Here's why.

Let me begin by stating that, first of all, I am not at all unaware of the significance of a movie revolving around a gay black man - a movie with an entirely black cast and creative team - winning Best Picture. This is a big moment, one that is hard to overstate from the perspective of those who have been arguing the cause of increased representation for years. But the Oscar itself is secondary when it comes to lasting change. It is something that many are already labeling as tokenism, the pendulum simply swinging back in response to two years of #OscarsSoWhite, and now that this is out of the voters' system the pendulum will most likely swing back. And where Oscar is concerned those voices are, sadly, most likely correct to a significant degree. But whatever else this year's Oscars may have been about they are also always about business and that is where Moonlight and other black led films are experiencing the true watershed moment with the potential to shift the course of the film industry.

The industry is, after all, exactly that. An industry. And, as such, it is motivated by profit. It is an apparatus built around spending large amounts of other peoples' money in the hopes of turning a profit with even the least expensive films being phenomenally costly in real world, every day terms. And the argument against black-led films - and this is equally the case for any other race other than white - has always been purely a matter of dollars and cents. Representation has been an issue because investors - whether corporate or private - simply don't believe that a black-led film gives them a good chance of recovering their investment and even less chance of actually turning a profit.

There is a structural basis for this argument in the independent film world. The indie film model has long been based on a model that preaches break even at home, turn a profit overseas. You aim to cover your exposure - as far as possible - with the domestic release while sales overseas cover up any gaps and generate profit. But when it comes to black-led films there are significant territories - even entire continents - that simply will not buy. Or, if they do, they drastically reduce their purchase prices believing that black people are not marketable in their territory. Need a demonstration of this belief on a large scale? Just look at the US and Chinese posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and side by side. Where's John Boyega? And if this is what happens to a Disney film with a monstrous marketing budget, what do you think happens to a small indie?


And this is where the Moonlights of the world factor in. Because they demonstrate that the model is wrong. Not that the sales market is any easier for these films than it is perceived to be - because it isn't - but because they appeal to such an underserved market that they consistently, and dramatically, over perform at the US box office when given a chance to do so.

When we talk about box office revenues we have a tendency to over-emphasize the gross numbers in isolation. But when it comes to viable investment the number that really matters is the Return On Investment - the ratio of income to expense or how much each dollar spent goes on to generate - so let's see how things stack up on that basis using 2016's top box office performers on an ROI basis and compare how things stack up. Note here that when using these US numbers that the budget numbers reported for studio films are often much lower than the reality - nobody ever wants to talk publicly about budget over runs - and that reported numbers never include the massive marketing spends linked to a studio release. Those marketing numbers are often as high, if not higher, than the production budgets and have major impact on profitability. Likewise, these numbers do not account for the exhibitors taking their share of box office revenue, so the actual box office ROI of these big studio films is significantly lower than these numbers indicate but it at least gives us some sort of marker to compare. I am omitting the animated entries in the chart both because they're not an apples to apples comparison and because they don't typically report budgets at all.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Budget: $200 million.  Worldwide Gross: $1.052 billion.  ROI: 5

Captain America: Civil War

Budget: $250 million. Worldwide Gross: $1.153 billion. ROI: 4.6

The Jungle Book

Budget: $175 million. Worldwide Gross: $967 million. ROI: 5.5


Budget: $58 million. Worldwide Gross: $783 million. ROI: 13.5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Budget: $250 million. Worldwide Gross: $873 million. ROI: 3.5

Suicide Squad

Budget: $175 million. Worldwide Gross: $746 million. ROI: 4.3

Now, when you look at this it's easy to see why people have been so enthused about Deadpool on the business side of things - the ROI there is fabulous - and it's important to note that when factoring in marketing, etc, that Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad underperformed so significantly that while neither reported a loss their results have led to a widespread re-evaluation of how Warner Brothers are approaching their DC content overall. When you move into the films placed 11 - 20 on the box office chart you start to see a high incidence of films that clearly lost money and the 21 - 30 range is pretty much a murderer's row of massive losses, some on a scale that are potentially studio threatening. This sort of big budget, large scale releasing is very high risk with the math very commonly playing out so that titles need to hit the billion mark - or very close to it - at the box office to break even.

Now let's look at what's happening in the supposedly more niche, black-led films arena. I'm including here the obvious critically acclaimed films that have been playing through 2016 plus a cross section of other, top of mind titles from the last couple years. I'm leaving Birth of a Nation off this list as the issues around its creator had a definite effect on its business while including a couple of more obviously commercially targeted titles for balance with the arthouse fare. Several of these are still playing in theaters and still driving these numbers upwards.


Budget: $1.5 million. Worldwide Gross: $22 million. ROI: 14.7

Hidden Figures

Budget: $25 million. Worldwide Gross: $183 million. ROI: 7.3

Get Out

Budget: $4.5 million. Worldwide Gross (OPENING WEEKEND ONLY): $30.5 million. ROI: 6.8

Boo! A Madea Halloween

Budget: $20 million. Worldwide Gross: $75 million. ROI: 3.75

Central Intelligence

Budget: $50 million. Worldwide Gross: $217 million. ROI: 4.34

Straight Outta Compton

Budget: $28 million. Worldwide Gross: $202 million. ROI: 7.2


Budget: $35 million. Worldwide Gross: $174 million. ROI: 4.97

Am I cherry picking the black titles? Sort of, but sort of not in that there simply aren't very many to pick from. There aren't very many of them made. But when they do get made the numbers don't lie: They consistently over perform when compared to the overall highest box office titles. From an investor profile perspective, Tyler Perry is a better bet than Batman. Think about that for a moment. Madea outperforms Batman. And Moonlight crushes Deadpool.

And this is where Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Get Out and the rest make the maximum impact. They prove that that there is an audience for black led films and that those films can be enormously profitable. So maybe the smart play is to make more of them.

Does that mean all of them will succeed? Of course not. Does that mean people should stop making white oriented movies? Again, of course not. But it very definitely takes away the argument that these movies don't get made because they cannot work at the box office. And in the industry that is, at the end of the day, ultimately motivated by the numbers, that should only result an increased number of voices as execs and investors try to find those untapped audiences. And for those of us who believe in the power of story the increased outlets for an increased number of voices can only be a good thing.

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Around the Internet

Todd BrownFebruary 27, 2017 11:18 AM

Also, nobody ever talks about what China has against wookies.

Michael LangFebruary 27, 2017 11:44 AM

Matters not all to me.

omnisemantic1February 27, 2017 11:47 AM

And BB-8 is clearly destined to become an early folk hero in the Chinese robot uprising...
Was the toy "Made in China"? Probably :D

J HurtadoFebruary 27, 2017 1:07 PM


Michael LangFebruary 27, 2017 1:41 PM

Thank you.

ZetobeltFebruary 27, 2017 2:49 PM

It matters. But I'm still waiting for a Best Picture with an all asian cast.

ZetobeltFebruary 27, 2017 2:54 PM

> Just look at the US and Chinese posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and side by side. Where's John Boyega?

There! Just below Harrison Ford.
The one that's missing is the half latin actor Oscar Isaac.

Nathan LudwigFebruary 27, 2017 4:18 PM

Says the white guy. Convenient.

YojimboFebruary 27, 2017 4:23 PM

There not as cute as Pandas.
Wookies don't eat sticks and they can move very fast.

Michael LangFebruary 27, 2017 4:56 PM

Boo hoo ...the po'wittle snowflake that Nathan is. So sad.

Nathan LudwigFebruary 27, 2017 5:06 PM

I think it's you who's the snowflake since yoy made it a point to reply so quickly. Did I strike a nerve, Herr Lang?

Michael LangFebruary 27, 2017 5:22 PM

Not at all snowflake...just sad that you have chose to go through life pathetically. Your choice. Typical.

Nathan LudwigFebruary 27, 2017 5:25 PM

Is that all you got? Disappointed. As your beloved dictator says, "Sad!"

My snowflake is made out if water but yours is made out of piss. G'day, you saboteur of common sense.

Michael LangFebruary 27, 2017 5:38 PM

Time to grow up Nathan...don'cha think?

Nathan LudwigFebruary 27, 2017 5:43 PM

As opposed to you?


Thanks for the hearty belly laugh, little fella.

Seriously though, stop talking.

Michael LangFebruary 27, 2017 5:58 PM

Nathan, Nathan, Nathan...it is truly big boy pants time. Move on Nathan...move on.

Todd BrownFebruary 27, 2017 10:19 PM

Yeah, in the general order of things It's worse to be black than white, worse to be asian than black and worse to be latino than anyone in the international sales market. There are exceptions, of course (like Bernal and Luna) and the Latino market at least has the benefit of a really large and natively Spanish speaking film community that it can fall back into but, seriously, name a latino character actor other than Luis Guzman.

One-EyeFebruary 28, 2017 1:17 AM

Bret Easton Ellis, on the Anne Heche episode of his podcast, spends a good 20 minutes talking about MOONLIGHT and he is pretty scathing about how he, as a gay man, reacted to it. He's incredibly concise and articulate about it, as he is about everything.

It's an interesting counterpoint to the overwhelming praise it's been getting.


WinstonFebruary 28, 2017 3:20 AM

It is nice that a film like Moonlight wins, but they need to rethink what BP means. Is it the best film? The most politically relevant film? Or the most deserving weighing factors such as box office and impact? La La Land should have won this year and The Revenant should have won last year. The BP award risks becoming irrelevant.

A man with a knifeFebruary 28, 2017 5:02 AM

Terrible film, but not worse than its competition.

Oscar bait + bait for pseudo-intellectual hacks like Todd. Never read articles that contain word Matters in its title.

J HurtadoFebruary 28, 2017 9:27 AM

Not entirely sure how Todd's discussion of economics - with actual numbers - makes him pseudo-intellectual.

Oh wait! You didn't read it. It all makes sense now. Anti-intellectual > Pseudo-intellectual

omnisemantic1February 28, 2017 9:45 AM

Oscar Isaac is in the movie for about 5 minutes tops - that's a pretty legit reason not to put him on the poster to be honest.

Peter MartinFebruary 28, 2017 10:54 AM

Michael Peña. But point taken.

Wjr.February 28, 2017 7:19 PM

This film touch on a uncomfortable subject matter in the Black community, and how we have to not abandon our children based on their orientation and their perception , it's a touching and sad film, and based on reality that is why this film won the best picture Oscar, La,La Land is great musical entertainment that has been done often in the past,it won several awards as well.

Nathaniel FisherMarch 1, 2017 2:59 AM

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ZetobeltMarch 1, 2017 9:33 AM

Federico Luppi (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth)? Danny Trejo (Heat, Con Air, Desperado, Machete)? Martin Sheen? Andy García? John Leguizamo? Ricardo Montalbán? Salma Hayek? Jessica Alba?

Todd BrownMarch 1, 2017 10:34 AM

There's a reason why Martin Sheen changed his name and spent his professional career NOT being Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez. And when you've got to span decades (and include a guy who's been dead for eight years) to come up with a list even this long ... well, it pretty much confirms the point. The women do better than the men (because white dudes like their exotic women) but there is no more than a literal handful of Latino men who can find consistent work in Hollywood (Luppi is not one of them) and only within very, very, very specific roles.

For a fun time rewrite this list using only dark skinned Latinos. That's a REALLY short list. The continental / blond Spanish looking Latinos do far, far better than the dark skinned / more native looking South American ones.

ZetobeltMarch 2, 2017 3:01 PM

You ARE right. But you ask me names. :-)
Michelle Rodríguez, Penélope Cruz, Sofía Vergara, Zoe Saldana, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, Eva Mendez, Gloria Estefan, Mía Maestro, Selena Gomez, Jordana Brewster, Rosario Dawson, Odette Annable, Morena Baccarin, Daisy Fuentes, Gisele Bündchen, Tia Carrere, Cameron Diaz, Raquel Welch, Rita Hayworth...