‘Straight Outta Compton’ Is Only a “Surprise Hit” If You Aren’t Paying Attention

Straight Outta Compton’s record-breaking opening weekend wasn’t just big money (with a final tally of $60.2 million, even higher than Universal’s original $56.1 million estimate); it was, according to industry reports, a giant surprise. Straight Outta Compton Surprised Hollywood at the Box Office,” announced Moviefone. It’s “one of the biggest surprises of the summer box office,” insisted CNN Money. “Straight Outta Compton beat all expectations,” noted The Hollywood Reporter. And they’re right; last week, the LA Times prognosticated Compton “could debut with $33 million to $43 million, according to people familiar with pre-release audience surveys. Universal has a more modest forecast in the mid-to-high $20-million range.” By later in the week, those estimates were bumping up to “$40 million — or more” (EW), “as high as $40-$50 million” (Deadline), $45 million (Box Office Mojo), and $51 million (Variety) — still a healthy under-appraisal of the final tally.

It’s no shock that the mysterious forces who make these projections got their numbers wrong; that happens all the time. But more often than not, everyone — from box office prognosticators to entertainment media to exhibitors to the studio execs who decide what movies to make, and for how much — underestimates the potential of movies like Compton, and continue to be floored when they do this well.

Jason Mitchell and Paul Giamatti in "Straight Outta Compton"

And even the raw numbers don’t tell the entire story of Compton’s success. As Blacklist founder Franklin Leonard notes, Compton “was in fewer movie theaters than every other movie that has ever opened bigger than its $60.2MM gross.” He’s right — and in fact (as Leonard also points out), the only movie to open at over $50 million on fewer screens is, coincidence of coincidences, another hip-hop movie, the Eminem-fronted 8 Mile.

But the “surprise hit” angle is nothing new, when it comes to films about, targeted at, and/or by people of color. Last fall’s No Good Deed was a “surprise hit”; likewise Ride Along earlier in the year. So was 2013’s The Butler, 2012’s Think Like a Man, 2011’s The Help, and so on. In fact, 2013’s Best Man Holiday was such an “over-performer,” it prompted one of USA Today’s goofiest headlines to date (no small feat, that). So I guess the question becomes, how many “surprises” do we have to get before such films making money is no longer newsworthy?

And speaking of covering news that isn’t newsworthy, it’s worth noting that CNN devoted an entire segment of airtime Monday to not only the financial success of Straight Outta Compton, but to the equally surprising fact that no one got shot trying to see it. “HIP-HOP FILMS HAD LONG LINES, NO VIOLENCE” read the head-desk-worthy chyron, in reference to those ominous news items about theaters beefing up security at Compton screenings. Silly theaters, learn your history: violence at “urban” movies is soooo ‘90s; these days, all the shootings are happening at the hands of terrifying, random, largely white psychos. (CNN also helpfully provided “commentary” by in-house law enforcement analyst Cedric Alexander, who twisted himself into pretzels of ignorance to insist the film is merely a quaint period piece and “We really have to get away from this whole ‘f the police’ to ‘support the police.’” Worst Detox outtake ever?)

The fact of the matter is, expressing anything resembling shock at the stellar performance of a minority-focused motion picture merely betrays a painful ignorance of the audience that actually goes to the movies. Last summer, a study by the Wrap determined the season’s most avid moviegoers weren’t young white men, the target audience for so many tentpole blockbusters; they were Hispanic women over 25. The MPAA’s 2013 theatrical market statistics found Hispanics made up 32% of “frequent moviegoers,” though they only comprise 17% of the population. And while the percentage of frequent moviegoers who are African American matches up exactly with percentage of population (12%), there’s also an argument to be made that this is an audience which might go to the movies more if more filmmakers were telling their stories.

Still from "Straight Outta Compton"

But even there, we’re getting into the false assumption that only black people want to see movies about black people. From the beginning, hip hop (like R&B and jazz before it) was a music that was exclusive to African-American audiences for about half a second. N.W.A. wrote about their experiences as black men in the inner city, but they weren’t just selling records to people exactly like them — a fact borne out by the demographic breakdown of the movie’s opening weekend audience. Compton’s ticket-buyers were 52% female; they were also 46% African American, 23% Caucasian, 21% Hispanic, and 4% Asian. And only 51% of that audience was under the age of 30, meaning those surprised by Compton’s success were forgetting Hollywood’s favorite money-maker: nostalgia. Or, as WTF producer Brendan McDonald put it, “For male thirtysomethings from the suburbs, this was Jurassic World.”

Yet the presumption that such an audience wouldn’t show up for Compton, or Ride Along, or Best Man Holiday, or any of the other “surprise hits” of recent years, speaks to an ongoing issue in production, budgeting, and marketing of films by and about people of color. “Studios, they have a genre, which is ‘black film,’” as director Gina Prince-Bythewood told me last fall. “But black film is not a genre, you know. That puts every film with people of color in the same box — and Baggage Claim is not the same as 12 Years a Slave, they’re two totally different films.” Recently, Prince-Bythewood accused Netflix of doing the same thing, as their “More Like This” recommendations for her romance Beyond the Lights have included the likes of The Game, Being Mary Jane, and A Different World re-runs — titles whose only common ground with Lights is the skin color of the characters involved.

And so it goes. Straight Outta Compton’s success shouldn’t shock anyone who’s paying attention — but what’s shocking is that a film with such an enormous potential to find an audience was low-balled on budget ($29 million — less than half of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which grossed a scant $13 million on in the same weekend), resources (it took a decade to get the movie made), and screens (it opened on 881 fewer screens than U.N.C.L.E.). Then again, in 2015, few things are shocking about the ghettoization of Hollywood.