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  • Writer's pictureAaron Braxton

Fading Silver Screen: Will Hollywood Exploit Black Audiences Again for Its Next Bailout?

African American rescuing the outdated Hollywood Entertainment System.
The Rescue

In the past decade, streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Hulu have profoundly transformed the entertainment landscape, posing an existential threat to Hollywood's traditional movie theatre business. These platforms have adeptly capitalized on the evolving viewing habits of  audiences; offering unprecedented convenience, diverse talent and content, and instant access that the old Hollywood studio system, clinging to its antiquated business model, struggles to compete against.

However, beneath the fading lenses, lies a troubling trend - a recurring reliance on African American audiences as a financial lifeline. Is Hollywood’s slight shift towards diversity simply another exploitative act in times of trouble? How are these changes affecting the industry and is the recurring pattern of Hollywood exploiting African American audiences in times of financial struggle still a reliably bankable strategy?

The Rise of Streaming Platforms

Streaming services have fundamentally changed how audiences consume content. With the advent of platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Hulu, viewers no longer need to plan their schedules around theatre showtimes or television broadcasts. Instead, they can watch their favorite shows and movies at their convenience, whether it's binge-watching a new series over a weekend or catching a late-night film.

Netflix, the pioneer of this revolution, started as a DVD rental service and evolved into a streaming behemoth. By producing original content and acquiring exclusive streaming rights, Netflix has become synonymous with binge-watching and on-demand entertainment. Similarly, Amazon Prime and Hulu have followed suit, creating award-winning original series and films that draw in millions of subscribers.

Disney+, launched in 2019, quickly amassed its own millions of subscribers with its vast library of beloved franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar. The platform's success underscores the shift from traditional viewing to streaming, highlighting the convenience and broad appeal of having an entire entertainment universe at one's fingertips.

Decline of the Traditional Studio System

The traditional Hollywood studio system, which relies heavily on theatrical releases and big-budget blockbusters, has been slow to adapt to these changes. This reluctance has resulted in declining box office revenues and a shrinking audience base. The COVID-19 pandemic further accelerated this trend, forcing theaters to close and pushing audiences toward streaming services as their primary source of entertainment.

Major studios have attempted to counter this shift by shortening theatrical windows and releasing films simultaneously on streaming platforms and in theaters. However, these measures have not been enough to stem the tide of change. The industry's traditional business model, which prioritizes high-stakes theatrical releases, is increasingly out of step with the demands of modern viewers who prefer the flexibility and variety offered by streaming services.

Historical Exploitation of African American Audiences

In times of financial hardship, Hollywood has a long history of turning to African American audiences, as a potential savior, to regain market share and viewership. This trend dates back to the 1970s with the Black Exploitation film era, where films like “Shaft,” "Super Fly,” “Cleopatra Jones,” and “Cooley High,” were created to appeal to Black audiences. Often featuring Black protagonists and addressing urban themes, these films were commercially successful and helped to stabilize Hollywood during turbulent times.

The Fox Network Model

Another notable example of this strategy is the Fox Network in the late 1980s. To compete with the "Big Three" networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), Fox heavily invested in African American programming, launching shows like “Living Single," "In Living Color," and "Martin." These shows attracted significant African American viewership, helping Fox establish itself as a major player in the television industry.

Fox's success set a precedent that other networks soon followed. In the mid-1990s, the UPN and WB networks adopted a similar approach. Shows like "Moesha," “Girlfriends,” ”The Steve Harvey Show," and "The Jamie Foxx Show" were pivotal in building their initial viewership base. However, once these networks gained market share, they pivoted away from African American-centric programming. UPN and WB eventually merged to become the CW network in the early 2000s, then abandoned their earlier focus on Black audiences altogether.

This pattern of exploitation raises a crucial question: Will Hollywood resort to the same tactics and exploit African Americans in its current struggle?

The Power of Choice: Will History Repeat Itself?

The answer lies with the African American audience. Black viewers are no longer a monolithic demographic. They represent a diverse range of tastes and interests. Hollywood's success in regaining their support hinges on genuine representation and a commitment to authentic storytelling with authentic production heads leading the charge.

This requires a significant shift in Hollywood's approach. Here are some potential steps:

  • Invest in Black storytellers: Green light films and shows driven by the creative visions of Black writers, directors, and producers. (All three simultaneously.)

  • Move beyond tokenism: Avoid stereotypical casting and ensure Black characters have well-developed narratives.

  • Embrace diverse stories: Recognize the range of Black experiences and showcase stories that go beyond struggle and oppression.

  • Create an infrastructure where IMPACT is the genuine goal: Recognize that individuals of the similar ethnicities do not always have the same goals. If diverse voices contributing to an ever-evolving society and media landscape, is the goal, then choices in leadership need to truly reflect and exemplify that.

By fostering genuine inclusion and offering compelling content that reflects the Black experience, Hollywood can build a sustainable relationship with African American audiences. One built on mutual respect and artistic merit.

The Current Landscape

While streaming services are disrupting the traditional model, there is a renewed focus on diverse and inclusive content. Streaming platforms recognize the value of African American stories and creators, producing hit shows like "Dear White People" (Netflix), "Them" (Amazon Prime), and "Black Is King" (Disney+). These platforms offer more opportunities for African American creators to tell their stories authentically, without being sidelined once initial success is achieved.

Hollywood’s Resistance to Change

Despite the success of streaming services and the evident shift in audience preferences, major Hollywood studios have been resistant to fully embrace this new paradigm. The traditional model, with its reliance on blockbuster releases and extensive theatrical runs, continues to dominate studio strategies. This resistance is not just a matter of habit, but a deeply ingrained business practice where the financial stakes of a single film can make or break a fiscal year.

The reluctance to change is also tied to the industry's structural dynamics, where the costs of producing and marketing films are extraordinarily high. Studios are accustomed to the revenue streams generated by theatrical releases, which include box office sales, DVD and Blu-ray sales, and broadcast rights. Adapting to a streaming-first model requires a complete overhaul of these established revenue streams and business practices.

Streaming Services as Innovators

In contrast, streaming services have positioned themselves as innovators and disruptors. Netflix, for example, has invested heavily in data analytics to understand viewer preferences and tailor content accordingly. This data-driven approach has allowed Netflix to create and market content that resonates deeply with its audience, driving high levels of engagement and subscriber retention.

Amazon Prime and Hulu have also embraced this model, leveraging their vast resources to produce high-quality original content. Disney+, with its extensive catalog and brand recognition, has swiftly become a powerhouse in the streaming world, offering both new original content and access to classic franchises.

Moreover, Hollywood's over reliance on A-list actors often results in a substantial portion of a film's budget being allocated to star salaries before a single frame is shot. While A-list actors undoubtedly bring star power and draw audiences, the financial burden they impose can be staggering. For instance, casting three A-list actors can easily consume around $45 million, necessitating that studios recoup these costs through hundreds of millions in box office sales. This financial pressure can stifle creativity and limit the opportunity for new and diverse voices to emerge in the industry.

Streaming services have revealed that the public has an insatiable appetite for high-caliber, well-written, and expertly directed stories. These platforms have demonstrated that when production companies effectively use their marketing dollars and advertising prowess to highlight the existence of such content, star power becomes secondary and production budgets remain manageable.

Audiences crave compelling narratives and quality production, proving that a great story can captivate viewers and achieve success without relying heavily on the draw of A-list actors. This shift underscores the potential for a more diverse and inclusive entertainment landscape where talent and creativity take center stage.

The Role of African American Content Creators

Amid this landscape, a few African American content creators have found new opportunities to bring their stories to life. Streaming platforms have shown a willingness to take risks on diverse content that traditional studios might overlook. This shift has led to a renaissance of African American storytelling, with creators like Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, and Jordan Peele gaining prominence and critical acclaim.

The Future of Hollywood

As Hollywood grapples with the dominance of streaming services, the industry faces a critical juncture. To stay relevant, major studios must evolve beyond their outdated models and embrace the changing appetites of a more sophisticated audience. This includes not only adapting to new distribution methods, but also genuinely investing in diverse voices and stories by people and entities who are “genuinely,” focused on bringing those voices and stories to the public. (More on that in another article.) By doing so, Hollywood can ensure its survival and continue to captivate audiences in an increasingly digital world.

The industry must recognize that the exploitation of African American audiences and creators is no longer a sustainable business strategy. Instead, fostering genuine inclusivity and representation will lead to richer, more varied and vibrant, narratives that resonates with all audiences.

As streaming platforms continue to set the standard for the future of entertainment, Hollywood's success will depend on its ability to innovate and adapt to this new era.

Aaron Braxton, a multi-hyphenated creative artist based in Los Angeles, has roots in Roxbury, MA and Santa Rosa, CA. A SRJC graduate, with a BA from SDSU, and a MA from USC, he transitioned from a career in education to become a multi-award-winning screenwriter, playwright, actor, and author. His best-selling children's novel, Jesse and the Caterpillar Who Got Its Wings, has captured the hearts of readers everywhere. Discover his extraordinary world at:


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