During its opening weekend, Red Tails debuted at number two and raked in more than $19 million at the box office. Traditional advertising and marketing efforts may have played a role in luring moviegoers to watch the George Lucas-produced film depicting the triumphs and tribulations of the Tuskegee Airmen, but the consumer-created digital online movement that occurred before, during, and after its release may have had a substantial impact, too.
Word of mouth advertising and marketing work online
The anticipation of Red Tails’ release incited many Internet users, predominately African Americans, to take on the mission of spreading the word about and persuading others to see the film by using their own fingertips. Because of the film’s historical context, and the notion that if Red Tails did not do well in its opening weekend it would thwart the Hollywood studio distribution of future films that feature an all-black cast, these Internet users garnered support for their cause using various online communities and services.
This weekend, in addition to the weeks leading up to the movies release, there were countless tweets, Facebook groups, and status updates, as well as blogs (including ours) encouraging moviegoers to purchase a ticket at one of the 2,512 theaters in which Red Tails would play. Web sites such as Team Red Tails Take Action also launched pledge drives to motivate people to either sponsor a child or coordinate group outings to see the film. Additionally, mass emails circulated to increase the momentum of the cause.
Historically, word of mouth advertising and marketing have always been a useful and a well-received marketing technique, especially within communities of color. According to an article on Business.com, “When it comes to buying products and services, African-American consumers often rely on recommendations from their friends, family and neighbors.”
And in digital communities, where African Americans and other people of color can have a strong voice, online word of mouth proved to be just as effective.
According to the findings of an Ogilvy PR and Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication report, 58 percent of African Americans and 51 percent of Hispanics are more likely to believe that they can spread the word about a cause or issue using social networks. The report also suggested that African Americans and Hispanics “…subscribe more readily to the belief that social networking sites like Facebook make it easier to support causes today, and that these sites help increase visibility for causes.”
Why did Pariah not get a similar online movement?
It is a fact that Red Tails was not the first movie to feature an all-African American cast, nor the first movie directed or written by African Americans. Many movies exclusively produced by African Americans have made it to the silver screen. The most recent example is Pariah, a movie about a Brooklyn teenager who juggles conflicting identities and risks friendship, heartbreak, and family in a desperate search for sexual expression, which was released a few weeks prior to Red Tails and grossed less than $500,000 as of Jan. 23. However, some publications feel that a similar online movement should have launched for Pariah, and that it should not take a prominent director like George Lucas to “put the fear of God” in African Americans to spark a movement.
Surely, there were not droves of people on social media Web sites persuading others not to watch Pariah, but one must consider the various reasons why Pariah did not gain an online movement. Here is a major reason why:
For its silver screen debut, Pariah was released in only four movie theaters – two in New York City, one in San Francisco, and one in Hollywood. By the time it was released nationwide on Jan. 6, Pariah showed in 11 theaters across the country, compared to the 2,512 theaters Red Tails played during its opening weekend.
Since Pariah played in so few theaters across the country, people may not have felt the need to start an online movement because (1) it was not playing in a theater near them, or (2) they were unaware of the movie (less theaters equal less advertisements, or heavy advertisements only in the location where the movie is played).
Unfortunately, the underlying issue is why traditionally marginalized groups like African Americans and other minorities do not get much attention from Hollywood production studios. African Americans can go out in droves to see Red Tails opening weekend, but unless they show such support for other all-black-cast films like Pariah, which may have gotten a wider release if there were evidence of guaranteed ticket sales, we may continue to see a lack of color in Hollywood.
If you watch it, they will come
Clearly, there needs to be a new digital movement within the Internet-based communities of color. The new movement should aim at Hollywood film studios and distributors who agree to release movies featuring minority content, but only release them in select theaters. Pariah was released by Focus Features – the same studio that did movies such as 2005’s Brokeback Mountain (released in 2,089 theaters), 2005’s Pride and Prejudice (released in 1,335 theaters), and 2011’s The Debt (released in 1,874 theaters).
After Red Tails’ opening weekend and its digital online movement, Hollywood and other critics cannot deny that “black” can equal “green.” Unfortunately, in the eyes of Hollywood producers and distribution studios, movies with predominantly black casts can still be a gamble. The only way to prove Hollywood wrong is to continue to support such films by viewing them in theaters and encouraging Hollywood producers to not only green-light such films, but to grant them the same wide release that they do other Hollywood films.
Tiffany K. Bain is a 2011 public relations graduate of Florida A&M University. She currently serves as the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council’s Research Associate. She got her start in the industry in 2007 as an Emma L. Bowen Foundation intern at the nation’s leading cable provider.