Beyond ‘Black Panther,’ Studios Are Losing Interest in the Domestic Blockbuster

"Black Panther" is a huge hit overseas. So are "Detective Chinatown 2" and "Paddington 2," and that's where studios are taking their cues.
Beyond Black Panther, Studios Losing Interest in Domestic Blockbusters
"Black Panther"

As expected, last week “Black Panther” passed $1 billion worldwide when China opened to strong numbers. Overseas, the Marvel title now ranks above nearly all recent comic-book movie adaptations. Next week, it should cross $600 million in North America alone. This is wonderful news on many levels: For Marvel and for Disney, certainly; and also for diversity representation in the blockbuster realm. But what “Black Panther” can’t do is uplift the rest of the marketplace: Where “Black Panther” has soared this year, most releases lag.

The simplest way to compare year-over-year box office is to check the respective box office totals year to date. By that standard, 2018 looks terrific at the moment; we’re up eight percent already.

However, by this point last year, we had five films — “Split,” “The LEGO Batman Movie,” “Fifty Shades Darker,” “Logan,” and “Kong: Skull Island” — open to over $40 million. “Get Out” opened a little below that, but had already earned $100 million at this point in the year. That momentum helped propel the month of March, which really took off in the second half when “Beauty and the Beast,” “Power Rangers,” and “The Boss Baby” all opened over $50 million.

This year, not only is “Black Panther” the only title to open to over $40 million (albeit by a factor of five), but it also remains the only release to pass $100 million. (“Peter Rabbit” and “Fifty Shades Freed” will make it over that number, the latter just barely). Beyond “Black Panther,” that eight percent increase for 2018 is largely a testament to holdovers “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” and “The Greatest Showman.”

Fifty Shades Freed
“Fifty Shades Freed”

To look at it another way: The first 11 days of March 2018 saw a domestic box office total of $347 million; March 2017 brought in $1.163 billion. That’s an $816 million deficit, and we have no shot of fulfilling it; the only question is by how much we’ll fall short. A reasonable guess is $200 million-$300 million; any shortfall greater than $171 million will mean, despite “Black Panther,” we’ll end the month with 2018 box-office revenue facing a decline.

On the international front, it’s a similarly bittersweet story. “Panther” will end up over $600 million in foreign grosses, and set precedent in destroying the played out thought that films with mostly black characters do not perform well internationally, particularly in Asia. “Black Panther” is at the top 10 foreign releases of 2018 to date, one of six titles produced in Hollywood. The other four — “Detective Chinatown 2,” “Operation Red Sea,” “Monster Hunt 2,” and “The Monkey King 3” — are local-language blockbusters made in China.

The problem with those six domestic movies in the top 10 is, beyond “Black Panther,” their foreign appeal greatly outranks their domestic. While “Fifty Shades Freed” had a respectable domestic run, 72 percent of its worldwide revenue came from foreign. “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” was a near flop in North America, but 80 percent of its gross came from foreign. “Paddington 2” is a domestic disappointment; 82 percent of its revenue is foreign.

69C-4a_2880x1620_R_CROP(L-R) Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Cranks leader Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), Frypan (Dexter Darden) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar).Photo credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
“Maze Runner: The Death Cure”Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth

What that suggests is this: North American theaters are starving for viable product beyond “Black Panther,” but studios may not see reason to worry as long as overseas performance creates a strong bottom line. From Hollywood’s perspective, the more significant threat may be China’s increasing confidence in its own domestic releases; they will need to develop even more movies that can compete with it.

As a virtually all-American production, “Black Panther” is an incredibly positive achievement. But whatever it may do for on-screen representation, don’t expect it to change what seems to be the studios’ direction: Appeal to the world first, and deal with the home team later.

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