The Wakandan Revolution

Columns
In Focus

As of March 4th, Disney and Marvel’s Black Panther became the tenth-highest-grossing domestic release of all time (not adjusted for inflation) in only its third weekend in theatres. It is also now the third-biggest superhero film of all time, soon to pass The Dark Knight and conceivably able to top the current champ, The Avengers.

This would be a remarkable achievement under any circumstances, but Black Panther is historic in another way. It is also the first big-budget superhero movie with a nearly all-black cast. That makes it a game-changer.

All around the country, exhibitors have witnessed the sheer joy of African-American audiences as they have finally gotten the opportunity to see actors who look like them propelling an exciting, fantastical, heroic story about a mythical African kingdom that delivers both immense pleasure and pride. The charismatic cast includes two Oscar winners and two Oscar nominees, and two very gifted rising stars as the main adversaries, T’Challa (aka Black Panther) and Erik Killmonger: Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. And behind the camera is talented 31-year-old African-American co-writer/director Ryan Coogler, who joined the Marvel family after two highly acclaimed films, Fruitvale Station and Creed.

Black Panther’s $400 million foreign gross (to accompany its $500 million domestic tally) should finally put to rest the myth that Hollywood films with black stars don’t travel well. (One might have thought box-office giants of past decades like Eddie Murphy and Will Smith would have ended that argument long ago.) Even before Black Panther’s current triumph as a broad audience-pleaser, there were very obvious signs that things had changed. There’s the phenomenon of Jordan Peele’s Oscar Best Picture nominee Get Out, a $5 million horror film/social satire that has earned $255 million worldwide (and not just from the black audience to whom it so directly speaks). Tiffany Haddish became a breakout star in Girls Trip, a raucous $19 million comedy that earned $115 million domestically. And who are two of the most consistent box-office draws in movies today? None other than Samoan/African-American Dwayne Johnson and African-American Kevin Hart. Paired together for the second time in December’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, they were key players in a box-office juggernaut that has earned nearly $400 million domestically and a worldwide gross of $928 million.

The past year has seen breakthroughs for other underestimated and underserved sectors of the population: Wonder Woman’s $820 worldwide gross proved that formidable females (both in front of and behind the camera) could drive a big superhero movie, and Pixar’s Coco ($740 worldwide gross) embraced Mexican culture at a time when that country could use some love from the U.S. (And let’s not forget that Mexican directors have won the Oscar four times in the past five years.)

The numbers don’t lie. At a time when many people are calling for more diversity in studio executive suites, there’s no need for extra motivation—it makes simple economic sense.

Making Cinema an Event

“Event cinema” is a programming category that’s developed incrementally, but its share of movie theatre income keeps rising. 2017 was an especially significant year, as leading purveyor Fathom Events reported 26 releases that each generated more than a million dollars, up from 14 in 2016 (including top earner Disney’s Newsies: The Broadway Musical with $4.7 million) And remarkably, Fathom Events is now the 13th-largest theatrical distributor in the United States. The company currently has a presence in some 35 countries, competing with similar alternative distributors around the globe.

In the April edition of FJI, associate editor Rebecca Pahle speaks with Fathom CEO Ray Nutt and chief content and programming officer Gordon Synn about the challenges still facing this sector. Chief among them is marketing. As Nutt explains, “Unless the content partner is coming to us with a significant amount of marketing assets available, we pass on that content. That’s a must.”

But, with savvy outreach, Fathom Events is creating a new habit for cinema-goers with a broad range of interests: opera, ballet, live theatre, classic movies, sports, anime, faith-based attractions and much more. Often, it’s a communal experience unlike the traditional hushed atmosphere desired for a movie—boxing matches and movie sing-a-longs are two examples.

As Fathom Events and other alternative-content distributors reinforce their branding and connect with their customer base, expect to see more special events coming to cinemas to help the exhibitor generate new revenue from non-peak times when their auditoriums would otherwise be nearly empty. The growth of event cinema is certainly something to root for.