The New York Times has gone as far as to call the film a defining moment for Black America, with Black Panther expected to break domestic opening records this weekend for the month of February with a four-day range of $155 million-$172 million, a benchmark for any movie that has starred a predominantly Black cast. Those projections are also poised to outstrip the openings of Will Smith-starrers Suicide Squad ($133.7M) and I Am Legend ($77.2M). At an estimated $200M cost, Black Panther is also arguably Hollywood’s biggest production ever featuring a Black cast.
With Disney and Marvel’s full might behind it, emerging superstar director Ryan Coogler, a cast of the best and brightest Black actors, and the best reviews of any Marvel superhero movie fueling it, can Black Panther also become a cultural milestone overseas and shatter the glass ceiling that has existed, where most movies with predominantly Black casts have seen grosses pale in comparison to domestic business?
After the industry embarrassment of #OscarsSoWhite three years ago, Black Panther is bound to incentivize the industry beyond wishes, not only opening the doors to more inclusive storytelling, but also further demonstrating that there’s a strong business in four-quad tentpoles featuring actors of color.
Should Black Panther open to $120M at the overseas box office (where it’s playing in 70% of all offshore markets this weekend), it would be considered a huge start for a deeper Marvel universe character, surpassing the international starts of Ant-Man ($73M) and Guardians of the Galaxy ($80M). By comparison, Marvel’s top overseas openers include Age of Ultron ($201.2M) and Captain America: Civil War ($200.4M). Should Black Panther final abroad around $445M, it would equal the take of Doctor Strange, the latter pic based largely on an unknown MCU character propped by the star wattage of Benedict Cumberbatch.
Black Panther touches ground in UK, Hong Kong and Taiwan today; then adds France, Italy, Germany, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Mexico and Korea through Friday. Disney is banking on the February 16 Lunar New Year as a big driver in Asian territories. China and Japan will open weeks later.
Universal/Blumhouse’s Get Out already broke down barriers as a racial commentary wrapped in a horror movie, not only earning four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, but also resonating with mainstream audiences to a domestic haul of $176M. A year later, Black Panther is another benchmark. Hollywood is often criticized for casting actors from diverse backgrounds in stereotypical roles, but that’s not the case here with Black Panther in its story about government leaders, warriors and strong female protagonists.
And for Disney, such glass-ceiling shattering doesn’t stop at Black Panther: On March 9, the studio will open the feature adaptation of the children’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, which at a $100M-plus budget is the first production of its scope to be directed by a woman of color, Oscar nominee Ava DuVernay. In addition, Disney’s 2019 live-action release The Lion King touts a large Black cast that includes Beyonce, Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keegan-Michael Key, James Earl Jones, Alfre Woodard and Eric Andre among many others.
It’s well-worn that a number of African American movies do not mirror domestic performance when it comes to offshore markets: Whereas the traditional tentpole can expect 60%-70% of its global B.O. from abroad, movies with predominantly Black casts quite often reverse that trend with overseas repping less than 50%, i.e. Get Out (31% of $255M global or $78M foreign), Straight Outta Compton (20% of $201M global or $40.4M), mainstream Denzel Washington movies like Safe House (39% of $208 global or $81.7M) and even Black Panther director Coogler’s Rocky spinoff Creed (37% of $173.5M global or $63.8M).
Will Smith and Eddie Murphy’s canon have always been the exception given their global stardom. Murphy saw a number of his live-action $100M-plus-grossing domestic titles clear larger results abroad including Coming to America, Doctor Dolittle and The Nutty Professor (Beverly Hills Cop 2 made close to the same amount of money overseas as its $153M stateside B.O., which was huge in its day for a comedy). Smith, who like Tom Cruise has aggressively embarked on world tours for his pics, has seen international outweigh domestic on such movies like MIB 3 (71% of global $624M B.O.) and Hancock (64% of its $624.3M worldwide B.O.)
Hollywood’s recognition that offshore grosses comprise 75% of tentpole film tickets sales explains why there hasn’t been an attempt to launch a superhero series with a Black lead actor since New Line/Marvel’s Blade series. Produced by the last of the renegade indie studios in its creative heyday, that ballsy Wesley Snipes series carried the R rating, strong language and violence that has been anathema to the studio superhero formula except for Deadpool. Blade was more cult hit than global blockbuster, with overseas repping less than 50% of its global take on its first two titles in the series.
Studios have become conditioned to accept the low international business, and not even try hard. Blade-maker New Line sold international rights to its Shaft revamp to Netflix for a premium, giving the streaming service the right to feature the film outside the U.S. and Canada only two weeks after its U.S. premiere. It was a strong incentive to New Line, as Netflix paid for more than 50% of the film’s budget. It saved Warner Bros from having to spend P&A in the international marketplace, but clearly the studio was concerned about diminishing returns if it had followed the traditional theatrical rollout.
When Taraji P. Henson was promoting her action vehicle Proud Mary before it flopped for Screen Gems, the actress said she pushed the label for an international tour, and lamented that studios don’t even try to promote such African American fare abroad despite the impact they’ve had on fashion and culture in other countries. She added that the only reason why her TV series Empire finally aired overseas was because it was getting pirated.
Disney is positioning Black Panther abroad as another four-quad Marvel movie, spurred off the heat of the franchise. So as to maintain the pic’s superhero sensibility, they’re keeping the campaign fairly uniform from territory to territory, though there are some slight differences in some offshore territories.
Gianluca Chakra, Managing Partner of major regional Middle East distributor Front Row, explains that Black Panther materials aren’t focusing on star Chadwick Boseman out of costume in the territory, rather the “[superhero] character himself. Doctor Strange was like that. He’s not one of the more famous superheroes, so it was just the same as elsewhere. That movie was massive in the Middle East and I think this will be the same.” Superhero movies “just keep working,” he says.
In the U.S. and Europe, Disney is selling Black Panther on its cast ensemble in its one-sheets. The one-sheets in Asian territories spotlight the masked feline character, de-emphasizing his identity. Both the posters and Asian trailers emphasize action, which is another appealing selling point for audiences there.
Black Panther doesn’t open in China until March 9, nearly a month after the rest of the world, and Disney is hoping that the accumulated word of mouth from the rest of the world spills over to the Middle Kingdom. Reviews on local sites like Douban (where the pic is already listed) assist in raising the pic’s profile. A Wakanda exhibit has been featured in malls in seven cities along with other stunts and displays of characters showing Black Panther next to his Captain America: Civil War peers like Iron Man, Thor, etc to trigger association to that $1.1 billion global grossing blockbuster.
A featurette trailer (see below), this one tailored for China, shows Chadwick Boseman introducing himself and explaining Black Panther’s connection to the greater MCU.
Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, was on the red carpet at the U.S. premiere on Jan. 29 to snap pics and capture short-form video with the cast and filmmakers which was released in real-time in the Middle Kingdom. This is the first time Weibo has partnered with a foreign studio on this type of activation. Marvel superhero movies routinely gross over $100M, even the lesser known variety. Last year, Boseman was voted the “Most Popular U.S. Actor in China” at the 13th annual Chinese American Film Festival. But even if Black Panther breaks through in China, some in the industry doubt that it will change the prospects for titles with predominantly Black casts.
“The themes of most films with largely Black casts will still not be of interest to Chinese audiences,” says USC professor and China specialist Stanley Rose on whether Black Panther will have an impact on Chinese moviegoers, “This is more about superhero films where the characters happen to be Black, but not about African-American films more generally.”
Japan could prove a challenge for Black Panther, but that’s largely because deeper universe MCU films rarely do well there in general (read Doctor Strange at $16.4M, Ant-Man at $9.6M and Guardians of the Galaxy at $9.5M). Typically Japanese audiences flock to sci-fi and Disney Animation titles. In Smith’s heyday, Japan was a strong territory with I Am Legend ($40.2M), MIB 3 ($38.9M), and Hancock ($28.7M unadjusted), however nascent DC villain team Suicide Squad wasn’t that far off from Doctor Strange with a $15.6M take.
South Korea could over index for Black Panther given the country’s strong embrace of the Marvel brand. The studio capitalized on that, shooting in the location for the second time since Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney/Marvel is mum regarding a tax credit out of Buson). Outside of China, South Korea was the top market on Doctor Strange ($41M), and Captain America: Civil War reaped over $62M. Disney kicked off the global press tour in Korea last week with stars Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B Jordan and director Coogler.
Black Panther incorporates a number of tribal customs seen throughout Africa, but it isn’t expected to post enormous numbers there simply because the theatrical infrastructure is still nascent in the continent. A “big movie” over there is any title that does over $1M, read Civil War minted $800K across the continent outside of South Africa which alone grossed $2.1M. Reporting is often done under the heading of Kenya and Nigeria with various countries grouped together, or lumped into Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA) figures.
Gauging European sentiment, an Italian distributor expects Black Panther to do well because it’s Marvel, but not as much as films led by better known characters. “It’s not like doors are shut for Black movies or actors, but people want to see movies they can relate to. Moonlight was unrelatable for the general audience here. That background is not their culture.” Chakra says that in the Gulf where there is a Black population, moviegoers don’t respond to certain African American titles because they’re “too American”
“They can sort of relate. In the culture, Black is cool but it also has to be in the context of the movie, like Get Out,” says Chakra. All Eyez On Me clicked because “Tupac is a legend.” Conversely, Straight Outta Compton failed to gain traction because of a lack of familiarity with NWA.
But what makes Black Panther accessible to a greater crowd abroad in addition to being Marvel is that it’s inherently a spy film, not unlike 007 which overseas audiences adore, with a story about a globe-trotting fictional African nation ruler/superhero T’Challa. Such qualities are the biggest entertainment values for Black Panther in its pitch to foreign crowd.
There’s another interesting footnote to be made here on the point of a Hollywood tentpole breaking glass ceilings. Sony’s family adventure comedy Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is close to minting $900M worldwide, and another example in the wake of Universal’s Fast and Furious franchise of how multi-cultural ensemble cast tentpoles rally at the box office. Though the film has yet to open in Japan, China to date is Jumanji’s biggest territory with more than $76M.
“Everything will probably be different next week. Hopefully this is the world before Black Panther and the world after,” said one bullish international distribution executive, “Many markets where all-black films have been challenged, will maybe be changed forever.”