As 'Black Panther' sets opening weekend box office records worldwide, Hollywood's out of excuses

Last weekend, Black Panther posted the highest February opening in the history of the Netherlands.

Also in Colombia, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador, Panama, and Paraguay. It had the biggest Saturday box office take in the history of South Africa. It made more than $25 million over the weekend in South Korea, just ahead of the haul it made in Ireland and the United Kingdom. The movie has made more than $170 million around the world, in addition to the $242 million posted in North America (its Monday number was revised to a record $40.1 million), and it has yet to open in several major foreign markets.

In the process, Black Panther did more than smash records – it smashed, forever, outmoded ideas about what “black” movies can do in international markets, erasing forever the movie industry myth that black movies don’t “travel.” African American filmmakers have long complained that myth is used as an excuse to deny robust financing for their movies.

“I’ve been in this business 25 years, and there are certain weekends you’ll always remember, and this is one of them,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at the box office analytics company comScore, who spent the weekend crunching the phenomenal numbers for Black Panther.

“It’s astounding performance, but it goes beyond the box office. This movie creates a conversation that goes beyond that. It’s a cultural event, a touchstone moment. Certainly, in our industry, it eliminates preconceived notions of what a hit movie looks like.”

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And it’s a hit movie in international markets – markets often cited as a graveyard, Dergarabedian said, for certain kinds of American comedy, for movies about American sports, for movies with predominantly black casts. Black Panther is certainly the latter. It’s title character (Chadwick Boseman) is king of the African nation of Wakanda, who in the movie answers several challenges to his throne.

The fiction that black movies don’t play well overseas was so tenacious it took a Panther to kill it. Get Out wasn’t enough – it made $176 million in North America, but only $78 million overseas. Black Panther, by contrast, has the top international opening of any U.S. movie released in 2018, and is poised for a long, healthy run.

Why did one movie hit overseas while one did not? There is a famous axiom attributed to William Goldman that in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. He was talking about the enduring mystery of why movies rise or fall. And if nobody really knows what will connect with audiences in the United States, making predictions in culturally disparate markets overseas is even more futile. Get Out was a barbed and very culturally specific movie, with notes of race, class, and geography that will strike the American ear in a certain way.  Black  Panther is by its very nature a more international movie. Its racial themes — about the impacts of colonialism measured against an uncolonized African utopia — are more broadly understood.

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It also has the advantage of being connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the movie isn’t stuffed with Marvel cameos, Black Panther was introduced to moviegoers in Captain America: Civil War, a movie that raked in $745 million around the world, in addition to the $408 million it made domestically.

It also happens to be good. Though quality is certainly not a barometer of box office, it doesn’t hurt. “I think Black Panther is a great movie,” Dergarabedian said. “And I think great movies can play anywhere.”

And it’s being more broadly embraced. Dergarabedian said his company’s polling metrics show the movie has astounding word of mouth and is playing well across all ethnic and racial lines.

The opening weekend audience in North America was 39 percent black, 35 percent white (other estimates are as high as 37 percent), 18 percent Latino,  5 percent Asian, 5 percent “other,” and, apparently, 100 percent Wakandan. Across the board, audiences of all ethnic and racial stripes gave the movie five out of five on comScore’s metric for quality (the company does extensive “psychographic” debriefing of more than 1,000 viewers to compile its data).  Women accounted for 45 percent of ticket buyers, a share that’s typically 35 percent to 40 percent on any superhero movie’s opening weekend, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

What’s more, 88 percent of the audience said it would recommend the movie to friends and family – Dergarabedian said a score of 60 percent is considered “really good.” Two in five said they’d watch the movie again; one in five planned to own the movie permanently. Again, he said, off-the-charts numbers by comScore standards. Dergarabedian is still trying to wrap his mind around the movie’s box office reach. Until Deadpool, he said,  no movie had ever opened at $100 million in February. Black Panther opened at $200 million – it beat that number in just the Friday-Sunday period, adding tens of millions more on Monday. Oh, and it set Disney’s all-time record for Sunday box office, beating every other Marvel or Star Wars title.

Dergarabedian said the international box office is a fickle thing, and assigning theories to explain box office performance is always tricky. Star Wars movies, for instance,  don’t play nearly as well in China as they do in North America. Some comedies that underperform here – Hangover II, for instance – played astonishingly and inexplicably well overseas.

Another movie, by the way, that has played astonishingly well overseas is  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It doesn’t have a predominantly black cast, Dergarabedian said, but there’s little doubt that its main box office draws are Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson. And it puts another nail in the coffin of dead Hollywood ideas — the movie made $380 million in North America, and a whopping $527 million overseas.

It might top $1 billion.

A number that seems almost certain, he said, for Black Panther.

“To look at the ethnicity of a cast as a way of putting limitations on a film is completely outmoded. It’s been debunked. If anyone had any doubts, they should be completely erased at this point.”