“Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)
LOS ANGELES – “Black Panther,” Marvel’s African-oriented comic book adaptation, is shaping up to be the most successful movie at the box office ever for a film with a primarily black cast.
And it’s raising hopes for a new wave of broad-interest commercial films featuring black actors and stories.
“That a predominantly black-cast movie is getting this kind of traction finally shows what we all intuitively know: Make great art and people will respond,” said the actor-musician Common, who like many African-Americans in entertainment has criticized the industry for ignoring the potential of black-oriented films.
But some in Hollywood also worry that “Black Panther” may prove more the exception than the rule. For all the enthusiasm over the movie, they say it has attributes – like Marvel’s massive production and marketing machine – that will make it easy to be dismissed as an outlier by executives contemplating future projects. It also comes after decades during which films from black artists struggled to gain traction in Hollywood.
Hollywood has long underinvested in African-American movies. The movie industry makes assumptions about audiences that don’t match their behavior, say both African-American and white critics of the current system.
For many years, they note, studios executives believed that white moviegoers wouldn’t come out in droves to a black-driven film, a corollary to another longstanding trope: that black stars don’t fare well internationally. As it turns out, minorities now help drive the box-office of many blockbusters.
“I think no matter how much money this movie makes, it will be seen by a lot of people in [studio] staff meetings and greenlight committees as just a one-off,” said a prominent African-American figure in the Hollywood development world, asking for anonymity so as not to be perceived as criticizing potential business partners. “And the question: is how many more ‘one-offs’ will we have before they realize it’s a pattern?”
Ryan Coogler’s take on the 1960’s hero Black Panther, starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o and Michael B. Jordan, has turned into a cultural event. Opening Friday, the movie comes from Disney and its Marvel subsidiary, two of the most potent commercial forces currently operating in Hollywood.
It is projected by tracking services to gross some $175 million at the domestic box office over the four-day holiday weekend and even has a chance to top $166 million for the Friday-Sunday period—which would put it in the top ten openings of all time. Over the coming weeks, the action-adventure is expected to sail past $350 million domestically and could well surpass $400 million. Marvel gave Coogler a budget pegged by trade reports at $200 million, nearly unheard of for a black director.
The social context is ripe for “Black Panther” to be a breakout. Rhea Combs, the curator of film and photography at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, said that “‘Black Panther’ comes in the midst of Black Lives Matter and all the other important social movements that are happening now. It makes for a very powerful combination.”
Black stories are almost never made at top production and marketing budget levels, and thus often perform at more mid-range levels–they include the movies of Tyler Perry, which reliably gross between $50-$70 million.
One of the highest-grossing films to date with a largely black cast, 1988’s “Coming to America,” ranks at No. 291 on the all-time U.S. list when adjusting for inflation, with $274 million. And even that was an anomaly. The thirty years since have brought very little else of its kind, as the studios constructed most movies with primarily black casts as lower-budget niche offerings.
But “Black Panther” breaks that pattern. “What’s unprecedented is here we have a film with a black lead and majority black cast that’s also a tentpole film,” said Darnell Hunt, a professor and dean of social science at UCLA who specializes in issues of Hollywood and race, using the term for a modern expensive effects movie.
“Black Panther” has been tracking extraordinarily well with African-Americans. According to a survey conducted two weeks ago by the data analytics firm You.Gov, 74% of African-Americans said they planned to see the movie on some platform in the coming months. (By contrast, the highest percentage of African-Americans who said they’d seen any of the other 17 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was 44%, for 2008’s “The Incredible Hulk.)
But it’s in fact white audiences where the numbers really pop: 49% of white respondents said they planned to watch “Black Panther” on some platform. That’s actually a higher proportion than has seen any other Marvel movie. The next closest was the three-part “Iron Man” franchise, which drew 46% respondents.
“What you see here are numbers across the board with all races,” said Larry Shannon-Missal, the head of data services for You.Gov in the U.S. “Black people will turn out in a very significant way, but so will white moviegoers.”
UCLA’s Hunt drew an analogy: to “The Cosby Show.” “You knew black people were going to watch it,” he said. “But what made that show a hit was that a lot of white people watched it.”
For a lot of movies, that may not be even necessary. Minority audiences are actually helping propel box-office success for the biggest blockbusters. According to Hunt, who heads up an annual study of diversity in Hollywood, minority groups constituted more than 50% of U.S. ticket buyers on five of the top ten highest-grossing global releases in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available. It was the first time that threshold had been reached. His study of 2016’s box-office, due at the end of the month, could see that number rise higher, he said.
Other parts of the entertainment industry have long understood—economically if not ethically—the importance of diverse artists, says Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans and the current president of the National Urban League. “From Motown to Prince to hip-hop, the music business understands black artists have a lot of broad appeal beyond the black community,” Morial said. “So why hasn’t Hollywood understood that?”
Until recently, Hollywood studios have indeed been far more reluctant to make movies that went beyond a single black star or that dealt with black-specific stories – even though movies with African-American leads such as Will Smith and Eddie Murphy have been major box-office champions for years.
Only in the past several years have studios begun producing movies with predominantly black casts that deal with such themes. (Some of them, including “Get Out” and “Straight Outta Compton,” each topped $150 million domestic on budgets far smaller than that.)
For a long time, Hollywood refused to believe that white audiences would attend so-called minority movies—or even bothered to test the theory. A group of largely white male executives rarely greenlit stories about black America.
On the rare occasions those stories were made, they tended to find profitability—John Singleton’s 1991 inner-city drama “Boyz N The Hood” and the films of Spike Lee, particularly 1992’s “Malcolm X,” both of which came from major studios and topped $75 million in domestic box office when adjusting for inflation. But that success happened very infrequently and, observers say, with little regard for its meaning.
Still, some activists privately wonder why it took so long for Marvel to finally have a black superhero lead, particularly when many other lesser-known superhero characters were mined in the interim. Disney began actively developing “Black Panther” in 2009, driven by Nate Moore, Marvel’s key executive who is also African-American. Disney declined to make anyone involved in the movie available to comment.
Until Disney gave African-American filmmaker Ava DuVernay $100 million to direct next month’s “A Wrinkle In Time,” no black female had ever been handed a budget that high.
The activists also wonder if the effect of “Black Panther,” both inside and outside Hollywood, might be exaggerated.
“This movie is a fantasy,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema and media studies at USC who specializes in race and popular culture. Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” he noted, raised awareness for a political movement and even catalyzed others to carry the mantle. “I don’t think this will change anything,” he said. “Hollywood has never put its muscle behind telling the story of the real Black Panthers, so why would a fictional movie about a fictional place make them do things differently?”
Transforming “Black Panther” into a springboard for more representation in executive suites and on film slates won’t be easy, other diversity advocates acknowledge. But they say the fact so many are embracing an African-centric story could make the strongest case for more black-oriented movies.
According to the You.Gov study, 15% of Americans who have never seen a Marvel movie say they will break that pattern for “Black Panther,” suggesting the movie is broadening audiences.
“The best part of this film’s success is it will show a black movie can be not just important culturally,” said the Urban League’s Morial, “but a big winner economically.”
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