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David Poland

By David Poland

Friday Estimates by T’Klady

Fri Estimates 2018-02-24 at 12.47.07 PM

Okay… Black Panther.

The definitive answer to how super-huge Black Panther will be in the box office pantheon will come from foreign ticket sales. Domestically, it will be Top 10 and maybe Top 5 all-time. There have been 32 billion-dollar worldwide movies. Black Panther will make it 33. Only two of those billionaires have been under 50% foreign (The Dark Knight – $46.8% – and Rogue One – 49.6%). Black Panther may avoid the under-50 group, but it doesn’t look like it will be by a lot.

Some want the massive box office success of Black Panther to stand as proof of something other than itself, as well as Marvel’s unique place in the market. This is as wrongheaded in success as it is in failure.

Likewise, the international success (relative to domestic) of Moonlight and 12 Years A Slave is the norm for Best Picture winners, the only exceptions since The Expansion to five or more Best Picture titles are Spotlight, which was less than $2m off, and Argo, the only BP winner in these last that had a wide release.

But successful and failing movies have their orbit and they don’t tend to fit (or create) trend lines, which was a different story during the DVD era. International box office has become much more significant than DVD sales and the complications of selling movie theater tickets worldwide are very different than selling DVDs were.

Attitudes about race vary across the globe and to deny that is counter-intuitive. But that is no excuse for blithely backhanding every film starring primarily black talent. Aside from a few star directing names, virtually no one buying tickets really cares whether the person behind the camera is male or female, black or white. But having perspectives other than white male behind the camera makes good business sense on its face, just like having new talent . Neither argument is heeded often enough and getting a job directing a studio movie for the first time remains a rarity.

Black stories have value in the marketplace and not just with black people. This is an undeniable truth, but not the only truth.American theatrical films, for almost the entire existence of distribution, have all-white as the norm and anything off that was “a variant.” But America and the world have changed. And Hollywood is super-slow to make change without a financial gun to its head.

It’s hard to imagine – especially if you are under 40 – but DVD is only 21 years old. And the decision to make the format into a sell-through item instead of a rental was the first major paradigm shift in film business history that was was not driven by impending financial disaster. Cable and VHS before it were also voluntary, but those business models were  designed to fit the industry as it existed, not to change the landscape dramatically. Sell-through DVD changed everything within a few years, as DVD revenues outpaced theatrical box office and priorities shifted in every phase of making movies.

DVD was a boon, for a while, for black cinema in America as well. There was a lot of money out there for black movies, as in all genres. When the DVD business started to crater, studios saw disappearing revenues in every area of their business and adjusted their risk/reward analysis. But this narrowed “safe” choices, certainly beyond logic. But they were working backwards, focused on lost revenue, not building new revenue. That is the nature of working backwards.

The film industry did, actually, go backwards for black talent.

Then the pendulum started swinging toward both black talent and women.

In 2008, there was Twilight, Sex & The City, and Mamma Mia!. Two of the three were directed by women and all three were extremely profitable. I believe that Mamma Mia!, with a tiny budget and a $610 million worldwide gross, was the most profitable movie of that year.

So what happened?

Sequels to all three films would be directed by men (albeit some really gentle, kind men). The Twilight franchise made an absolute fortune, S&TC couldn’t find its way to a third film (although the second underperformed the first, it still made money). And Mamma Mia! 2 is arriving this summer.

In 2017, Wonder Woman would be seen as the gamechanger. We’ll see. The game still needs changing, but not just on the highest-profile films – where much of the credit can go to the franchise game – but in the middle of the industry. The slow reemergence of the black industry really started in 2009, with Fast & Furious, which was directed by a Taiwanese American and didn’t have any black leads, although the returning Vin Diesel calls himself a “person of color.” But the success of that film, reviving the franchise for Universal, which had Tokyo Drift, set up Fast Five, where the additions of The Rock, Ludacris, and Tyrese in major roles changed the game.

In 2012, there was Denzel’s biggest film without a major white star (the still growing Ryan Reynolds), over $200m worldwide, Safe House. There was, despite racial controversy and Leo, Django Unchained. There was Men in Black III, which reminded us of Will Smith’s star power (even though it was fading). And there was the rise of Kevin Hart, with Think Like A Man.

2013 was a slightly down year for “black films” at the box office, with Fast and Furious 6, 42, 2 Guns, and The Best Man Holiday the only Top 50 movies that year. There was a nice tag, however, with 12 Years A Slave winning Best Picture.

2014 saw four Kevin Hart movies, including his Ice Cube team-up for his first $100m grosser (Ride Along) and a hit sequel (Think Like A Man Too). Guardians of The Galaxy featured actors of color, albeit covered in other colors. Denzel revived The Equalizer with director Antoine Fuqua for Fuqua’s first $100m domestic hit. Annie was re-booted as a black musical. Let’s Be Cops was a surprise hit for the New Girl team of Wayans & Johnson. And The Rock flexed his Hercules, which more than doubled its domestic gross overseas. That’s seven of the top 50 domestic grossers that year. 14%. Plus Selma and No Good Deed over $50m domestic.

2015 was led by Furious 7, then Straight Outta Compton, San Andreas, and Creed in the Top 30 (13%), with two of those films directed by black directors. Add another 2 Kevin Hart films (Get Hard, The Wedding Ringer) rounding out the Top 50 (12%).

In 2016, Suicide Squad, Moana, Hidden Figures, and Central Intelligence (should ID4-2 be included) all cracked $100 million domestic. 13% of all $100m dom grossers. The Magnificent Seven, Ride Along 2, and Boo! A Madea Halloween added to the Top 50. (14%) Those last three were directed by black directors as well. And Moonlight won Best Picture.

And last year, it was Get Out, Kong: Skull Island, and Girls Trip in the $100m club (9%), though two of those films were hugely profitable with big grosses against small budgets, both directed by black directors. The Hitman’s Bodyguard and Baywatch rounded out the Top 50. Close by were Dark Tower and Tyler Perry’s Boo 2! A Madea Halloween.

Now, Black Panther… the killer king of black box office, taking its place with the very top box office hits of all time. And unlike some of the bigger hits of these last seven years, it has impeccable racial credibility. It’s not relying on Dwayne Johnson or Will Smith as the star, though it is worth noting that 9 of the last 15 years have had a black man (Will Smith) or a mixed race man (Dwayne) as the biggest star in the world. The director is black. Both writers are black. The cast didn’t include a big name white star for safety (wonderful as Andy Serkis is chewing the hell out of the scenery as a South African). And the story – almost the entirety of the film – is set in Africa.

Ryan Coogler gets a free hand to do as he wants for at least a couple films (more if he does the sequel). Stars are being made. Some irrational resistance will be broken.

But the war for inclusion is not being fought at Disney, where they have been embracing both black directors and female directors in the last couple of years in a way that they never had before and that is still unique in the industry. The war will be on the $30 million comedy or drama, where rising black directors (who are not one of the handful already well established and on a lot of wish lists) are not always being considered.

As with women, the challenge is that there are 4 or 5 now-name directors of color who make a film every 2 or 3 years. They may not care to chase commerciality, even when they have had real commercial success. I would love to see Steve McQueen’s Bond film with Michael Fassbender as Bond and a female villain who is much smarter and morally complex than Bond, but I don’t see it coming. Barry Jenkins took his free pass and is adapting a James Baldwin novel. Malcolm Lee can probably get any comedy he wants, but is an unlikely as for a $200 million production.

This is similar to “the Kathryn Bigelow problem,” as the brilliant director doesn’t want to work endlessly and her ambitions for depth in her work have become more important than hit status for her. If she is the de facto leader of the movement for women, does she need an $800 million grosser to help? Or does doing weighty work move the bar?

Anyway… this turned out to not be much about weekend box office. But Black Panther will probably be disappointing – in context only – internationally… and we really shouldn’t give a shit. It will be a massive hit everywhere. And it’s about the blackness. And it is about the Marvelness. And it is about a terrific movie. (And yes, I know some of you don’t think it is that great, but while the car chase isn’t Billy Friedkin, it is always wildly inventive and wonderful in a very different way than the gritty realism we all also love.

* * *

Game Night is not a disaster, but not a smash. $50m looks like the cap unless it takes off in some unexpected way. What was WB selling? I wouldn’t mind seeing it. But the call to action was very, very soft. Horrible Bosses, which was nicely leggy, had some more star power, but it also had a really clear idea. This one seems to be the comedy version of The Game… kinda…. sorta… maybe.

And Annihilation is an interesting movie that is getting dumped on 2,000 screens, right after the failure to launch mother!. I don’t know whether there was a better box office answer. The great Ex Machina did $25 million without ever having a $3 million day. But that was A24 and their ad spends are not like Paramount. It is hard for a major studio to release films that way and to be satisfied. Success in that way almost looks like failure because the special skill of studio marketing is scaling things up. But maybe a thinker like Annihilation is really meant to gross $30 million max and to become a legend in post-theatrical.

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14 Responses to “Friday Estimates by T’Klady”

  1. Monco says:

    Annihilation was quite something. Not sure what I saw but am damn glad I saw it. I feel Ex Machina was one of the few truly great movies of the last couple years. I don’t think this totally succeeds like that movie but it’s odd and specific and I’m thankful it exists. Any chance of getting a DP/30 with Alex Garland?

  2. Glamourboy says:

    Game Night really surprised me…it was a really fun night at the movies…Bateman and McAdams have terrific chemistry and the story continues to play games with you till the very end. I hope it finds an audience.

  3. palmtree says:

    “…set up Fast Five, where the additions of The Rock, Ludacris, and Tyrese in major roles changed the game. ”

    Ludacris and Tyrese were returning from 2 Fast 2 Furious, which was directed by John Singleton, and I believe was up to that point the highest grossing film by a black director.

    “Stars are being made. Some irrational resistance will be broken.” AND “And it’s about the blackness.”

    DP, that was really all I was trying to say about BP. It’s really hard to ignore at this point. And I know your specialty is taking the piss out of the hype, but at the end of the day, we basically are on the same page, except you gotta putting in your caveats and asterisks. And I appreciate that parsing, I really do.

  4. JSPartisan says:

    Marvel Studios has been working their asses off, to make Chadwick Boseman a star people want to see in China. If it paid off. Black Panther will do fine, and it will do fine in the second land of Marvel Studios… CHINA!

  5. Dr Wally Rises says:

    As soon as they announced that Annihilation was going to straight to Netflix overseas, for, frankly, being TOO GOOD for cinemas, I knew what the deal was for its commercial prospects domestically. After Never Let Me Go and Dredd (both of which I loved) Alex Garland just can’t catch a break at the box office, but I hope he keeps getting the opportunity to keep fighting the good fight and making smart, resonant sci-fi.

  6. palmtree says:

    Alex Garland didn’t direct Dredd or Never Let Me Go. Maybe that’s not what you meant, but I can see how it seems like he directed them.

    He’s already proven he’s worth the opportunities that he’s given. I have a feeling he’ll be like Edgar Wright, forever a bridesmaid until he gets his Baby Driver moment.

  7. EtGuild2 says:

    “Some want the massive box office success of Black Panther to stand as proof of something other than itself, as well as Marvel’s unique place in the market”

    The movie’s great, Kendrick Lamar’s soundtrack and the overall quality gave it a boost over other Marvel solo movies no doubt, but to think this won’t be used by execs as proof a nearly all-black cast can work on a 9-figure budget is nuts. Studios used Avengers’ template as a blueprint for everything from two new superhero universes, to solo-Star Wars movies, a MIB/21 jump street universe, horror-shared universes (Conjuring/Annabelle), etc. Why wouldn’t the profitability here drive a change in casting decisions beyond Disney?

    I think the days of whitewashed GHOST IN THE SHELL and EXODUS adaptations are nigh more than ever due to this.

  8. David Poland says:

    Do you really think either of those films with an ethnic-appropriate cast would have made more?

    Not saying that they shouldn’t go that way. But the reason it is done is to protect the investment and that pressure isn’t going away anytime soon.

  9. EtGuild2 says:

    I think things may have been a bit better. They certainly couldn’t have been worse. In GHOSTS case it would have brought in more of the faithful plus perhaps distinguished it from similar looking trailers for mainstream audiences.

    I think investment pressure may in some forms reverse following this performance. Im interested in several different paths:

    *Does Cyborg now focus more of Silas Stone and the pressure he feels as an African American father to repair his son’s injuries? Will the whole movie put more of a focus on his upbringing?

    *Black Panther isn’t really afro-futurist, but will we see more Afro-futurist elements following it, especially if WRINKLE IN TIME does well?

    *Disney got ahead of the curve with LION KING and ALADDIN’s casting. You have to think they are thrilled with how, what looked like a risky decision, is now a catalyst.

    *I’m curious what direction SHAFT went in. Did you all know there’s a new SHAFT reboot…but it stars Samuel L. Jackson, star of the last, completely separate SHAFT reboot? It’s already filming, so I wonder if BLACK PANTHER will have a tangential impact in either filming or results.

  10. palmtree says:

    I know you didn’t ask me, but I do think it would have made more with appropriate casting. For one thing it wouldn’t have been the subject of so much bad press. For another it would have appealed to the actual fans of this property who they were presumably trying to court.

  11. JSPartisan says:

    But Ghost in the Shell just ripped off Altered Carbon (the book), by having GiTS being about identity. There’s also the whole subplot, that’s there on screen, about Binoche’s character and her need to make the Major… her’s. I am not sure why they made a GiTS movie into an Altered Carbon riff, but maybe if they just made a GiTS movie with an Asian-American Major… the movie would have gotten less of a stank on it.

  12. Ray Pride says:

    What is the “appropriate casting”?

  13. EtGuild2 says:

    Something that better approximates adaptations, or doesn’t treat historical/quasi-historical events in a manner appropriate to, say, a Sci-Fi universe where Ancient Egypt was both ruled by and enslaved Anglo-Saxons.

  14. palmtree says:

    Ray, thanks for asking. “Appropriate casting” is casting a character who has been racially underrepresented in this country with someone of that race. It’s already unfair that many minority actors aren’t considered for leading roles that to additionally deny them of roles for which they are uniquely suited (ones where they share that character’s racial features) is especially cruel and indefensible.

    (Edit: The answer for Ghost in the Shell is to cast someone of Asian descent, just in case this wasn’t clear. Note, I didn’t say she had to be Japanese. A lot of people make up the straw man who says “Italians need to play Italians” and that’s NOT at all what I’m saying.)

    The character in Ghost in the Shell is named Motoko Katsunagi, a conspicuously Japanese name. And for people who are into anime, the appeal is that it is Japanese. They don’t need it whitewashed to serve them better, and if anything, the inappropriate casting just served as a warning that the filmmakers were not serious about adapting Ghost properly.

    With Black Panther it’s easy to say of course he would be played by a black man, because why would you mess with that?

    Yet when it comes to Asian characters, they routinely are twisted and modified with inappropriate casting so that a white actor can play him/her. The examples never seem to end, even though diversity is a buzzword. Only with the recent stepping down of Ed Skrein from Hellboy was there an instance of one these cases having a satisfying conclusion. Hope that helps, Ray.

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