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Black Panther crushed overseas sales projections. Can we stop saying “black films don’t travel”?

Some of Hollywood’s notions need a serious refresh.

Chadwick Boseman plays the prince of the fictional African country of Wakanda in Black Panther
Chadwick Boseman plays the prince of the fictional African country of Wakanda in Black Panther.
Marvel Studios
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Black Panther didn’t just obliterate box office records with its massive opening weekend. It may, finally, crush a pernicious Hollywood myth: that “black films don’t travel.”

You’d think the myth — which suggests that movies telling stories about black people, with black actors in the lead roles, aren’t interesting to many people outside of North America — would have died by now. But it persists, not just in the expectations that movie studio executives set for “black films,” but also in what they’re willing to invest in those films.

Black Panther, though, may have changed the game.

The “black films don’t travel” myth has been disproved before. But it’s remarkably sticky anyhow.

There are plenty of examples of “black films” — movies telling stories about black people, with black actors in the lead roles — that did just fine overseas, from Blade and Bad Boys to Ray and Creed. The 2015 film Straight Outta Compton, about N.W.A., was a hit not just domestically (where it brought in about $161 million) but also abroad (more than $40 million). In 2016, Hidden Figures, about three black women NASA scientists in the 1960s, made $165.5 million in the US and an additional $48.8 million overseas.

And Moonlight, the coming-of-age art film with an almost entirely black cast that eventually won Best Picture for that year, actually wound up making more money abroad than in the US — upward of $37 million of its eventual $65 million total box office gross came from the international box office.

But projections for Black Panther still underestimated how well it would do abroad. The Marvel movie opened in 70 percent of foreign territories the same weekend as its US opening (and it has yet to debut in some of the biggest global markets, including China, Japan, and Russia, where it will open the film in coming weeks) and made a whopping $169 million abroad.

Combined with its US ticket sales, that’s more than $400 million over the Presidents Day weekend, putting Black Panther’s launch among the biggest four-day opening weekends of all time, just behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

And yet, the estimates were much lower. Dave Hollis, who is president of theatrical distribution at Disney (which owns Marvel Studios and distributes its movies), told Deadline Hollywood that “it just didn’t seem possible” to the studio that Black Panther would overtake the Avengers movies.

Box office analysts had forecast that the movie would make about $165 million in North America in its opening weekend; the real number — which topped $218 million — blew that out of the water.

But going into the weekend, international ticket sales were still a wildcard. “The big unknown is how Black Panther will fare overseas, where Hollywood films with a black cast are perceived to face challenges,” the Hollywood Reporter explained three days before the film opened on February 15.

Insiders at Disney were expecting the film to garner $75 million to $115 million in ticket sales abroad on opening weekend. And that’s a far cry from the $169 million in international ticket sales that it actually picked up.

'Black Panther' Seoul Premiere - Red Carpet
Ryan Coogler, writer and director of Black Panther, with a fan at the film’s premiere in Seoul.
Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images for Disney

There are plenty of reasons that Black Panther did so well. Its core audience is full of Marvel devotees, but it also brought in many people who don’t typically make a point of seeing Marvel movies — many of whom are black. (Thirty-seven percent of the movie’s opening weekend audience in North America was African American, compared to the 15 percent who typically comprise the Marvel movie demographic; Caucasians made up 35 percent of the audience.)

Black Panther also benefited from group ticket sales to schools and churches — a tactic that has worked well in the past for bolstering the box office earnings of faith-based films. Excitement about seeing an underrepresented group of people on screen contributed to the buzz, as did terrific critical reviews and a stellar, star-studded cast. And it’s set in a fictional country in Africa.

In 2018, Hollywood needs to reevaluate what a “niche” film really is

It’s hard to imagine lowballing the potential for a movie with so much to recommend it. And that’s why the staggering underestimation of the film’s international appeal proves that the “black films don’t travel” myth is still alive and well.

It’s also a frustratingly self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the decision-makers at movie studios don’t expect a “black movie” to do well, they’re less likely to allocate the kind of resources that can help a film become a hit. Then, when the film doesn’t perform well overseas, it’s taken as a sign that their expectations were well-founded, and that myth is true.

'Black Panther' Seoul Premiere - Red Carpet
Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o at Black Panther’s Seoul premiere.
Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images for Disney

Taraji P. Henson voiced her frustration over this problem earlier this year while promoting Proud Mary, a movie that was more or less buried (and not shown to critics by studios before it opened in theaters). Proud Mary isn’t a great movie, but it is the sort of movie that visibly suffered from a lack of studio support — and if that support had it existed, it could have been a great action film. As Henson (who also starred in the much more successful and heavily marketed Hidden Figures) put it:

[Studios] never expect [black films] to do well overseas. Meanwhile, you go overseas and what do you see? People trying to look like African Americans with Afros and dressing in hip-hop fashions. To say that black culture doesn’t sell well overseas, that’s a lie. Somebody just doesn’t want to do their job and promote the film overseas. Do you not have people streaming my Christmas specials in Australia? Come on, y’all! I don’t understand the thinking. Send me over there, and if it fails, then we don’t do it again, but why not try? If I knew this movie was gonna make money domestically, I would try to get more money overseas. It’s business!

Black Panther is a welcome exception to the (misguided) rule. Marvel, to its credit, took a chance on the film, handing over $200 million to Ryan Coogler, the first black director to enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and to an all-black cast, to make a movie set in Africa. Even though Black Panther is tied to a beloved comics property, this was seen as a risk — which is telling — but it’s paid off richly.

The “black films don’t travel” myth is part of a larger pattern of outdated ideas about audiences in Hollywood. Wonder Woman, the first big-budget comic book movie directed by a woman and starring a female superhero, also performed well above estimates, sailing to massive box office figures last summer.

The film’s success, just like Black Panther’s, was also met with surprise by those who had underestimated its appeal. Movies by and about women, many had assumed, simply won’t play to a large audience of all genders. But that’s exactly what happened.

The result, however, was promising: Now there are hints that Marvel is considering an all-female superhero movie.

And that’s why Black Panther’s monster international success may finally mark the turning point for the “black films don’t travel” myth. For all its talk of progressive and inclusive values, Hollywood is still a town where money talks, and where ideas about what people want to see at the movies can be startlingly conservative.

When Black Panther overperforms not just at home but abroad as well, it starts to demolish the notion that just because a movie stars black people, it’s a “niche” film that won’t be welcomed by international audiences.

There have been plenty of reasons for that myth to drop away before now. But sometimes it takes an airhorn — or the unveiling of the previously hidden nation of Wakanda — to get people to listen.

For more about Black Panther and why its enormous success is so important, check out the latest episode of Today, Explained.

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