Barely into March, and “Black Panther” could be the biggest domestic release of 2018. It’s passed $430 million in its first two weeks, is approaching $800 million worldwide, and is on track to pass $600 million in North America, and more than $1 billion worldwide.
So many records in so little time. However, the film’s greatest impact doesn’t lie with its bragging rights. “The Black Panther” stands a real chance of reinventing the realities of studio filmmaking, of the release calendar, and the exhibition business of North America. Here’s how that’s happening, right now.
Big-Budget, Afro-Centric Films Make Money
“Black Panther” reportedly cost $200 million, similar to most Marvel (and rival D.C. Comics) titles. It will be one of the five or so most-expensive films of the year, and the P&A will cost more than half again as much. In the past, that financial weight was evidence against producing big-budget “difficult” films (read: female-led, or not white). Historical evidence showed they had a ceiling to their grosses.
Prior to “Black Panther,” the biggest-grossing film with a black ensemble cast was “Straight Outta Compton” (adjusted: $180 million domestic). The two films with black leads that grossed over $500 million adjusted, “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Men in Black,” were more than a quarter century ago. And, there was the eternal concern over overseas performance. (More on that below.)
At some level, this fear became self-fulfilling prophecy. Resources weren’t allocated to worthy directors and actors, so nothing could disprove the theory.
Now, “Black Panther” will be not only one of the top-grossing films of the year, it was also be one of the most profitable. “Get Out” was one of the biggest films of 2017, but Jordan Peele’s hit cost just $5 million. Similar successes like “Hidden Figures,” Tyler Perry’s string of hits, and “Straight Outta Compton” were much less risky investments. “Black Panther” is a game changer.
Foreign Doesn’t Have to Be Bigger Than Domestic
Roughly, studios believe any movie above mid-budget should gross more than 60 percent foreign, and less than 40 percent domestic. That was an argument against big movies featuring minorities and women: Not enough international interest.
Now, “Black Panther” has repeated the lesson of “Wonder Woman,” proving that domestic response can make up for less overseas interest. “Wonder Woman” grossed just under half of its total overseas. At $409 million, it was the #11 international film of 2017; at $412.5, it was #3 domestic.
If the normal ratio was in play, it would have grossed closer to $250 million in North America and $660 million worldwide. With production and marketing costs approaching $400 million, that would have made “Wonder Woman,” at the most, a modest money maker. But with this ratio, it created major profits despite a below-average international share.
“Black Panther” should blast past $1 billion worldwide. (Japan just opened, China comes next week, so international estimates are a work in progress, but $500 million or more is possible.) Domestic though looks certain to be an even higher share.
This trend isn’t just limited to these two titles. The three “Star Wars” reboots, with more female and minority inclusion, all had an above-average domestic share.
American Titles Are Balm for U.S. Theaters
Since studios concentrate their efforts on what makes the most money, one of the biggest threats to American exhibitors is the increasing gap between domestic and foreign performance. And most American theaters owned by foreigners (AMC by Chinese, Regal transitioning to British ownership), who are less sensitive to what American audiences want and more in favor of a one-size-fits-all release schedule.
Last year, films like “The Fate of the Furious,” “Despicable Me 3,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” grossed 75 percent or more of their totals overseas. If that decrees more productions based on foreign appeal, domestic grosses would invariably decline.
“Panther” with its African themes, “Wonder Woman” celebrating a female character — so-called difficult themes instead provided major profits and a desperately needed jolt of energy to the exhibition world.
“Black Panther” has boosted the case for big-budget films that overperform in the domestic market. Ryan Coogler deserves a prize from the National Organization of Theater Owners for not only bringing people into the movies, but also for making future domestic-driven productions less likely to be vetoed.
Yes, Black Films Can Have Wide Appeal
Outside opening weekend, audience surveys placed the African-American share of the initial “Black Panther” audience at 37 percent. Whites, Latinos, and Asians made up the bulk of the rest.
Of course, grosses at home have been fueled by its event status as a groundbreaking film. But if current percentages hold for a $600 million total, that’s $380 million worth of tickets to non-black audiences for a predominantly black film. That defies industry expectations.
Presidents’ Day is the New Memorial Day
Potentially, the biggest film of 2018 came out in February. That means “Deadpool,” with its Presidents’ Day Weekend breakout, wasn’t a fluke; it was a prophet. When movies break records, it usually happens in increments, but “Black Panther” opened to about 50 percent more than “Deadpool. It will end up better than last year’s blockbuster”Beauty and the Beast,” the previous biggest pre-May performer.
Grosses for 2018 to date are about 13 percent ahead of last year. One key to improving year-round totals is expanding the calendar, which gives much-needed breathing room in a crowded slate. Note to distributors: February is looking really good right now.