Another February. Another black-led film breaking box office records. Last year, it was Jordan Peele’s Get Out; this year, it’s Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised anymore. When underserved audiences are given a reason to show up in movie theaters they will do so in record numbers. See also: Wonder Woman. Just as importantly, if that movie is good enough it will bring in audiences of all ages, genders, and ethnicities. So, with the list of successful black-led films growing every year (Black Panther, Get Out, Girls Trip, Hidden Figures, Ride Along, Straight Outta Compton) old excuses about why more of these movies aren’t made fall away.
However, there remains a pernicious myth about black-led movies which not even Get Out could conquer, at least not totally. What about Black Panther?
I am now going to show you Black Panther’s current box office totals after four days of worldwide release, and I want you to pay special attention to the “foreign” part:
NOTE: The above image is actually a tad misleading. The domestic and worldwide totals reflect BoxOfficeMojo’s current estimates for Black Panther’s 4-day opening, but the foreign total is just the film’s 3-day total.
That’s already good enough for the fifth biggest domestic opening ever (behind Avengers, Jurassic World, The Last Jedi, Force Awakens) and the fifteenth largest global opening ever (directly behind movies like Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Civil War) despite not debuting in China, Japan, or Russia yet. That $169m foreign total includes $25m in South Korea (where part of the movie was filmed), $24m in the UK, and $9m a piece in Mexico, Brazil, and Australia.
But, wait. It gets better.
Current estimates have Black Panther climbing to $235m domestic over the 4-day President’s Day weekend, easily a new record for the holiday and third-biggest all time. All the more impressive considering that as of just two weeks ago box office analysts were predicting a 4-day ceiling of $165m for Black Panther. In retrospect, that might look like an embarrassing miscalculation, but, to be fair, box office projections are based largely on historical precedent which is a difficult proposition considering how truly unprecedented Black Panther is. No movie this unabashedly black, both in cast composition and subject matter/setting, has ever been made at this level ($200m budget) and released at this time of the year or quite so wide around the world.
Ah, yes. “The world.” That leads us back to that pernicious myth I referenced earlier.
Hollywood has long been of the belief that black-led movies simply don’t sell overseas. This excuse didn’t use to hold as much water when international box office accounted for, on average, just 20% of a film’s business. Back then, no one was really worrying if their movie would play well in China. Plus, even if their movie flamed out internationally as long as it did well enough domestically it could always be saved by home video.
But then the DVD market died, and the ebbs and flows of globalization led to emerging countries with plenty of disposable income and new movie theaters to attend. Now, international represents 70%, sometimes even 80% of a film’s bottom line. So, that old belief about black-led films absolutely matters now. You see it in the kinds of films being greenlit, purchased at film festivals and securing financing through foreign pre-sales. It also shows up in the amount of money sunk into marketing efforts as well as the local changes made by foreign distributors. John Boyega’s face, for example, was minimized on a Force Awakens poster for China and Brad Pitt’s face replaced Chiwetel Ejiofor’s on a 12 Years a Slave poster for Italy even though Pitt’s barely in the movie.
To pick a more recent example, last month ScreenGems opted not to screen its $14m female-John Wick flick Proud Mary for critics nor to even send the film’s star, Taraji P. Henson, out to make the promotional rounds. At a glance, this was simply the act of a studio dumping a crappy movie into the black hole that is January. Henson saw it differently, pleading her case to THR for why the studio should pay for her to head overseas and promote the movie:
[Studios] never expect [black films] to do well overseas. Meanwhile, you go overseas and what do you see? People trying to look like African-Americans with Afros and dressing in hip-hop fashions. To say that black culture doesn’t sell well overseas, that’s a lie. I don’t understand the thinking. Send me over there, and if it fails, then we don’t do it again, but why not try?
Henson made the right argument; she just picked the wrong movie to make it with. Proud Mary, as I wrote about elsewhere, is indeed a crappy movie (26% RT score; just 56% of the readers liked it) that a studio was simply writing off. The film currently has a worldwide gross of just $21m, and all but $600,000 of that came domestically. But Henson’s note of frustration over not even being given the chance to try at the international box office struck a historical cord.
This is where we have to talk about Will Smith.
Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, and Wesley Snipes had all become movie stars before Smith, but none of them came close to the box office heights he managed to reach in his prime. They didn’t all have TV shows launching them into fame, or if they did (Washington was on St. Elsewhere and Murphy on SNL, after all) they didn’t also have hit records and chart-topping singles as part of a side career as a musician (though Eddie Murphy sure tried).
That unique combination, a whole helping of charm, and perfectly timed projects like Independence Day, Bad Boys, and Men in Black helped catapult Smith into international stardom, but there’s an additional part of his formula for success which often gets overlooked. Much like what ScreenGems just did with Henson, the studios initially refused to send Smith overseas to promote his movies. So, he went ahead and did it anyway on his own dime, traveling from country to country to make his presence known.
As Octavia Spencer told The Los Angeles Times last year, “[Will Smith] was told the same thing [at the beginning of his career] — that he wasn’t going to be taken to promote his film. Had he not paid for himself to fly all over the world that very first time, he would not be an international box office star. So they have to start investing and taking black actresses and actors across the world just like they do with unknown white actors. They need to do the same thing for black actors. If you don’t know ’em, why would you go support the film?”
There are signs of progress, though. Universal made director Jordan Peele available to the foreign press for Get Out, and while the film was nowhere near an international sensation (just $78m) the way it was domestically ($176m) it still posted profitable numbers for a movie carrying a mere budget of $4.5m.
Yet that could also be seen by some as confirmation that black-led movies, especially those specific to the black experience in America, don’t sell overseas. To that point, 2017 was the most lucrative box office year in history for the horror genre, but other than Get Out just about every single major movie that contributed to that actually made 65-70% of its money overseas. Get Out’s 70% domestic/30% international split is obviously the exact opposite.
Moreover, at $115m domestic Girl’s Trip might have been one of the highest-grossing comedies last year, but it managed just $25m internationally. Ryan Coogler’s last film, Creed, replaced a white icon (Rocky Balboa) with a new black one (Adonis Creed) and soared to a respectable domestic run ($109m) but disappointed internationally (just $63m), making it the first Rocky film since 1982 to make less overseas than at home.
Here’s the annoying thing, then, about the “black films don’t travel” myth: sometimes it’s not actually a myth. Sometimes it’s actually true, or at least seems to be. As Forbes explained, “Generally, the would-be success story for a Ride Along or a Hidden Figures is where the film does so well in North America on a relatively responsible budget that its overseas figures are essentially gravy.”
That’s why the next Shaft movie, a reboot/sequel hybrid from Blackish’s Kenya Baris and Barbershop’s Tim Story, isn’t even bothering to play in theaters overseas. New Line Cinema sold the international rights to Netflix for $15m, which allowed the studio to up the film’s budget to $30m.
But it’s more complicated than all that. If black movies don’t travel then why did Coming to America make more overseas than in the States back in 1988? Why did the biggest domestic hit of Denzel Washington’s career, 2007’s American Gangster, actually make more money overseas? How on Earth did Best Picture winners 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight end up playing bigger outside of America? Ditto for Idris Elba’s The Dark Tower, Jamie Foxx’s Django Unchained, and Will Smith’s Hancock, I Am Legend and Men in Black 3?
“Every time there’s a success, it gets swept under the rug,” Jeff Clanagan, president of Lionsgate’s Codeblack Films, which primarily produces films with African American casts, told the LA Times. “It’s almost like there’s an asterisk on it. They chalk it off as an anomaly.”
Does Black Panther’s $169m foreign debut change all of that? It absolutely should, but Clanagan’s right. These successes tend to be explained away somehow, and the asterisk next to Black Panther is the MCU. While its specific box office totals are eye-popping and record-breaking, Black Panther’s still just doing the Marvel Studios thing in that it is making money at a ridiculous rate. How can anyone possibly replicate that success given the unparalleled decade of brand awareness and reliability Marvel Studios brought to Black Panther? It’s the MCU’s first solo movie for a black hero, but it’s also more or less a direct sequel to a movie, Captain America: Civil War, that grossed over a billion dollars.
Still, taken altogether with Get Out, Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton, and Girls Trip, Black Panther should finally convince any holdouts in Hollywood that to ignore the black audience any longer is fiscal negligence. Not only do these movies, when properly marketed, play to an untapped market (Black Panther’s opening audience was 37% black when the norm is just 15%) they also possess serious crossover appeal and reinvigorate staid genres. Audiences of all colors want to see something new.
On top of all that, the Fast & Furious movies continue to be multi-ethnic rainbows raining down money across the land. So, as The Ringer’s Austin Collins told CNN, “Now that we know diverse casts make money, rather than losing it, there’s no logic — not financial, not social — in which not having diverse casts makes the most sense.”
But that’s domestic.
Internationally, the truth of the matter is there are certain cultural tendencies which can’t be overcome. Based on historical box office, dramas play better in the UK than they do in Germany. Comedies struggle in France, Italy, and Spain. Coupled with the death of the DVD market, which represented 50% of a studio’s income, these are the types of trends that have pushed Hollywood toward four-quadrant, language-neutral blockbusters. As such, when black-led comedies or dramas about the unique African-American experience and history do get made we’ve become accustomed to seeing them struggle overseas (no Tyler Perry Madea movie, for example, has ever made more than $2m overseas) much as any locally made Chinese movie or Indian movie struggles outside of their home country.
The takeaway is it’s not skin color but genres which international audiences discriminate against at the box office. In general, movies with diverse casts can make hay anywhere in the world as long as the movie is good enough and translatable across cultures, but a comedy, be it one starring Tiffany Haddish or Will Ferrell, is still a total crapshoot. Part of that is down to a feet-dragging reluctance on Hollywood’s part to actually build up movie stars anymore. Part of it is due to the prejudices and reluctance of foreign distributors and investors. But a large part of it simply comes down to the inherent challenge of translating comedy across cultures. Put a black face in a genre movie, though, and the world will respond. Make that movie as good as Black Panther and the world will rejoice and turn #WakandaForever into a rallying cry.
Sources: The LA Times, Forbes, CNNMoney