NPR’s Code Switch, their relatively new site devoted to race, has been a steady source of fascinating stories since its inception, but I was particularly stuck by this finding from a survey of 1,081 African-Americans by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. According to the results, the respondents said the aspect of their communities that they were most dissatisfied with was the entertainment offerings available to them:
The thing folks rated worse than their local schools or police departments or health care — lower than anything else they were asked to rate — was the quality of local entertainment venues like movie theaters and nightclubs. While neighborhoods with a paucity of food options are often described as “food deserts,” respondents gave their grocery stores relatively high grades.
We wondered whether the harsh ratings given to entertainment venues might be a symptom of “popcorn deserts” in black neighborhoods, but we found no significant differences in these ratings when broken out by the racial makeup of the respondent’s area. This was one of the few areas where the pollsters didn’t see a split depending on the respondent’s financial self-assessment. Whether they said they were in strong or shaky financial shape, respondents were most likely to offer up C, D or F grades to their entertainment venues.
Hollywood’s proved remarkably impervious to the idea that African-American audiences might represent an underserved audience they could plausibly make more money by programming to, treating Will Smith (let’s see what happens to him after the box-office crash of After Earth, shall we?), the success of Tyler Perry, and Oprah Winfrey all as if they’re unreplicatable flukes. But if I were John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, this is a finding that would send me scrambling to answer two sets of questions. For his members, I’d think Fithian might want to find out whether movie theaters in predominantly African-American neighborhoods are in a state of decay? Do they get releases more slowly? Do they need to run shuttles from public transportation? And for the studios, with whom the theater owners have a complex but deeply intertwined relationship, if Fithian is thinking strategically, I’d hope he’d be asking for how they can improve the content they have to offer his members who operate theaters in communities that are significantly African-American, or have large numbers of African-American moviegoers.
This is an industry that’s proved its willing to chase higher and higher profit margins by investing enormous amounts of money in superhero franchises. You’d think it might consider doing the same by investing in offerings for non-white movie-goers, at a much lower cost, rather than assuming that they can continue to take such audiences for granted.