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Is the Success of ‘Black Panther’ Actually Hurting Other Films? Nobody Knows, and That’s Hollywood’s Real Problem

The theatrical distribution business continues to operate out of fear as they remain one of the only businesses still in the dark ages of data.

"Black Panther"

“Black Panther”

Marvel

Scott Mendelson’s much-discussed Forbes.com article “‘Black Panther’ Should Terrify Every Hollywood Studio” makes a startling claim: One movie’s incredible and sustained box-office success is consuming potential profits of the would-be tentpoles released in its wake.

Mendelson points to the tremendous opening weekends of last March: “Logan” ($88 million), “Skull Island” ($61 million), “Beauty and the Beast” ($174 million), “Power Rangers” ($40 million) and “The Boss Baby” ($49 million). This year saw the disappointments of “Red Sparrow,” “Wrinkle in Time,” and “Tomb Raider,” not to mention “Annihilation.”

However, that assessment skips past another, obvious problem — Hollywood has narrowed its theatrical offerings to different flavors of the same high-priced, VFX-driven, boom-or-bust product — and the author assumes moviegoing is a zero-sum game. Certainly, there’s a rising-tide argument that “Black Panther” brought in droves of non-regular moviegoers, and that the tremendous buzz surrounding it – accompanied by being only the second superhero movie to receive an A+ Cinemascore — created much-needed cineplex excitement.

The counterpoints I’ve offered are just as valid (or not) as Mendelson’s. Neither of us have any real controlled study or data analysis to back our points. And the truth is when it comes to theatrical distribution, not only does no one know anything — no one ever seems particularly interested in finding out.

Walmart grew its an empire by carefully studying the seasonal and regional consumption patterns, properly stocking each store and customizing displays to anticipate customer needs. Meanwhile, the film business  was — once again! — surprised to discover that Christians will see a film like “I Can Only Imagine,” which speaks to their values. Hollywood does know that these viewers often live in “flyover states” — a dismissive label that speaks volumes about how their opinions are valued.

At a time when Netflix knows what each member of a household watches when, and on what device, the major theater chain that got my $16 to see “Black Panther” doesn’t know my age, gender, race, movie consumption patterns, or which factors made me choose their theater to see that movie. Theaters can’t even tell you if I bought a popcorn. From politics to sports to technology coming out of Silicon Valley, data determines everything.

Meanwhile, studios, content creators, and major talent agencies continue to wear blinders. They fight to get a piece of the new SVOD revenue stream that they only evaluated after their leverage was gone, taking with it user data about who watches their content. They are now faced with Netflix’s global empire, using data to create a sophisticated feedback loop that leads to experimentation and innovation in which each new data point better positions the company to make decisions about how to spend money on future content.

It’s information that told Netflix that stories of African-American characters would find an audience here in the U.S., and that shows like “Dear White People” would be of interest to its growing international customer base. Compare that to the studios who believed the apocryphal tale that black films won’t travel until they discovered that an African-American superhero provided the biggest movie in Marvel history. This, of course, came on the heels of “Wonder Woman,” which demonstrated that 51 percent of the population might want to see someone of their gender have super powers and kick a little ass.

Dear White People Season 1 DeRon Horton Netflix

“Dear White People”

Adam Rose/Netflix

This isn’t about Hollywood being more sexist or racist than Netflix, or other industries; it’s about ignorance. A lack of information leads to poor decisions and operating out of fear, as movie execs find themselves straightjacketed as they mindlessly mimic prior success. (With “Annihilation,” Paramount clearly had no idea how to market a heady sci-fi movie, and played up its horror ingredients to no avail.) Check out the studios’ throw-their-hands-up attitude toward millennials — the first digitally native generation, which is twice the size of Gen X.

Upstarts A24 and NEON see them as opportunity, but major studios have decided they can’t market to them, nor can they compete with their smartphones, Netflix and video games. They’ve got only one pitch: “This event film is so big, so spectacular, it’s worth the high-priced ticket to see it on the big screen!” It’s a clumsy approach for an onDemand generation that doesn’t buy individual pieces of content, but finds value in spending $10 a month on Netflix and Spotify subscriptions that create variety and choice. Where, millennials forced every other major business to adjust how they do business; Hollywood is like the grizzled football coach who keeps calling the same play that worked in the past, and seems utterly befuddled as to why it won’t work now.

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