When David Oyelowo decided to step behind the camera to direct the family adventure film “The Water Man,” the Emmy, BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated actor and producer had already overcome several hurdles just to get the movie made. Then the pandemic struck, forcing the movie into the turbulent rapids of the ever-changing film distribution landscape.
But “The Water Man” has found its audience in the form of streaming.
Since the movie’s launch on Netflix earlier this summer, “The Water Man” has climbed onto the streamer’s top 10 list in 38 countries, including the Philippines, Romania, Colombia, Spain, Kenya, Nigeria, Portugal, Poland, Malaysia, France, Israel, Kuwait, Thailand, South Africa, Ecuador and Panama.
“I feel elated and vindicated, really,” Oyelowo told Variety.
“‘The Water Man,’ as a script was, was one of those pieces that, anywhere we went to initially there was a bit of trepidation around this quite lazy phrase, which is, deeming the film, a ‘tweener.’ Is it for kids? Is it for grownups?” he recalls. “I just kept on going back to these films that I loved growing up, and I don’t know that the phrase ‘tweener’ existed for [Steven] Spielberg to have to navigate when he was making ‘ET’ or ‘Close Encounters.’ I think it’s a quippy executive praise, that’s another easy way for them to say no.”
So for the film to reach tens of millions of viewers across the world, according to what Netflix told him, Oyelowo is over the moon. “It’s proven the universal appeal of a story like this,” he says. “Plus the fact that a family of this nature as exhibited by myself, Lonnie Chavis and Rosario Dawson is being embraced so beautifully across the planet, is just so wonderful.”
“The Water Man” stars Chavis as a young boy named Gunner, who sets out on a quest to save his mother (Dawson) by tracking down a mythic figure called The Water Man, who holds the secrets to immortality. Amiah Miller plays Jo, a local girl who Gunner enlists to help him track down the mysterious figure who lives in the remote forest, while Oyelowo is Gunner’s father, Amos, who sets off to rescue his son as the kids’ journey becomes increasingly dangerous. Written by Emma Needell, the movie also features Alfred Molina and Maria Bello.
After debuting to strong reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, RLJE released “The Water Man” theatrically and on PVOD in May, with Netflix handling global distribution on streaming beginning July 9. The movie launched on Netflix in the U.S. and Canada on Aug. 25.
Oyelowo says that the streamer was able to give him a breakdown of how many people across the globe have seen the film, “and watched it to the end,” he notes. “Which I’m told is quite different than than just clicking on it out of curiosity, and is something that Netflix really looks at, in terms of whether it’s sticky.”
“What is so amazing about streaming is that the data is hard data,” Oyelowo explains. “They can tell you when someone stopped watching. They gave me figures down to the single digits, of people who have watched this thing, and that just gives me as a filmmaker different pieces of information for my next movie.”
The strong response to the film has also been a bit of an “I told you so” moment for the filmmaker, who recalls various streamers and studios turning down the project, which was produced by Shivani Rawat’s ShivHans Pictures, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films and Oyelowo’s own Yoruba Saxon banner.
And while, Oyelowo and “The Water Man” team have had the last laugh, the filmmaker admits that he was surprised by some of the countries where the movie over-performed.
“When I’m finding out that the film is number one — not just in movies, but across the platform — in Ecuador and Panama, these are not places that crossed my mind, if I’m perfectly honest, when I was making the film,” Oyelowo explains. “But it’s just so validating as a storyteller, that you know you can take this 11-year-old boy and his journey of sacrificial love for his mother, and that can resonate.”
Since the film’s release, Oyelowo has been inundated with messages and emails from people talking about how the film resonated with them emotionally and spoke to their experiences.
“Especially in the midst of the pandemic, where all of us know what it is to face the challenges or the potential challenges of loss, of family challenges, of health challenges,” he notes. “So the film has connected with the audience in a way that I couldn’t have anticipated.”
But the information also provides validation of a few things Oyelowo already believed to be true: first, that the goalpost for success is changing in the film business; second, that there’s an audience for mid-budget family films like those Spielberg and John Hughes made; and finally, that there’s global appeal for those films starring people of color.
“It’s been so interesting because I have come up in this industry, with very clear metrics of success, like box office and awards, the size of the budget, the size of your pay day,” he explains. “Those being things that are the compartmentalized metrics of your trajectory as a filmmaker, how the audience is imbibing your content. But a lot of them are built on lies that have been pervaded by gatekeepers.”
“I am shocked that the foreign sales model is something that we are still even engaging with,” he continues. “Because, I would say, fundamentally that is based on the side of our business that is fraught with prejudice.”
Those models, he explains, are hampered by the fact they’re a self-fulfilling prophecy. By basing an actor, director or project’s success based on the global box office numbers, while also perpetuating the racist and outdated myths that “Black doesn’t travel” or “Female-directed or female-led stories are pilloried as chick flicks or niche,’” Oyelowo says, “Then, how on earth can that metric be true, when the same industry that is creating the metric is also actively marginalizing, some of the folks who are trying to get their stories out there.”
The data also does much to dispute the racist and outdated “conventional wisdom” that “Black films — and stars — don’t travel.”
“It’s a narrative that we are seeing eroded every day, but I just love being part of the erosion of this narrative,” Oyelowo says, pointing to Will Smith as the most famous example of fighting against the naysayers.
Just like Smith famously traveled the globe in order to prove to studio heads and other Hollywood gate keepers that the audience did in fact want to see him, his movies and other movies by Black people that looked like him, Oyelowo has faith that the streaming data will do much to dissolve the stigma.
“[Smith] did that partly for the success of those films, but to prove a point,” he says. “It’s so exhausting to feel you have to prove it, but I do it because hopefully it’ll mean for me, for others, for great companies like ShivHans who have supported someone like me, it’ll be a little bit easier next time around.”
Oyelowo has also dealt with this stigma personally, outside “The Water Man.” When “Nightingale” director Elliot Lester headed to Cannes to get funding for the movie, he was told by a foreign sales agent that, “You’re making a mistake by putting a Black actor in that film, it simply will not succeed.”
In the end, Oyelowo won the role, and was Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated for his performance. “That person was wrong,” he says. “But if my director wasn’t open-minded enough, I would never have got that opportunity, and the film wouldn’t exist.”
The streaming data will provide some real ammunition against those types of conscious and unconscious biases, because Hollywood is all about the numbers. “I can tell the people who said no to [this movie] how wrong they were. I now have the algorithmic data-driven version of the foreign sales model, that was guessing games,” Oyelowo says.
“The Water Man” was also deemed a “mega-hit” in Africa, Oyelowo points out. This particular data point is particularly important to the Nigerian-British star, because it proved that the Afrocentric themes he worked to present within this movie translated to the audience. The designation also confirms that Africa is a continent Hollywood needs to turn its attention towards those billion potential subscribers as the distribution landscape evolves.
“Look, I love the movie theater as much as anyone. I know we’re all trying to figure out how to get back to the movie theater, if that side of our business is gonna bounce back,” Oyelowo adds. “But the reality is that streaming is what has given the opportunity for ‘The Water Man’ to reach tens of millions of people and be in the top 10 in 38 countries. That just wouldn’t exist with the traditional models.”
Oyelowo and his Yoruba Saxon banner — which the actor founded alongside with his wife Jessica — has produced film and TV projects including “Nightingale” (HBO), “Captive” (Parmaount), “A United Kingdom” (Fox Searchlight), “Five Nights in Maine” (FlimRise), the documentary “Ferguson Rises” (PBS) and “Solitary” (BRON). Earlier this year, the company inked a first-look deal with Walt Disney Pictures for feature films, with the Yvonne Orji-created series “First Gen” in the works for Disney Plus. Oyelowo says company’s motto is to “normalize the marginalized.”
“We are trying to respond to the changing terrain,” he explains. “If you make the mistake of sticking with what was working for audiences, even pre-pandemic, I think you are making a mistake. I think what we’re going to see going forward is that it’s going to be less about the star who is in something and more about what it’s about.”
Oyelowo predicts that the global audience will grow increasingly powerful in this streaming age, demonstrating that power by “voting with their clicks as to what they want to see.” And with that, he hopes to see “a normalization of diversity — which is a phrase I even balk at saying because it’s become such a buzzword.”
That’s why Oyelowo has one more hope for what “The Water Man’s” success can create — that Chavis now has an easier path through Hollywood than he and his Black male peers and predecessors have had.
“Lonnie is a stupendous talent. And traditionally, someone like him, just wouldn’t get that kind of break until he’s in his late 20s. There is a reason why we all scratch our heads about ‘Why didn’t I see Morgan Freeman when he was younger? Or Sam Jackson, or Denzel Washington, or Don Cheadle?’ They’re plugging away for decades before they get a shot,” Oyelowo says.
So Yoruba Saxon has focused on creating opportunities for young Black stars like Chavis, Storm Reid (“Don’t Let Go”) and Jordan A. Nash, Keira Chansa and Reece Yates (“Come Away”).
“It’s intentional, it’s conscious, and I would just appeal to some of those folks who turned down ‘The Water Man,’ to think outside the box,” Oyelowo says. “Because we’re out here every day feeling the need to prove something, that really we should be beyond having to prove.”
“The Water Man” is now streaming on Netflix.