Will 'Black Panther' Be a "Watershed Moment" for Black Studio Films?

Like 'Wonder Woman,' Marvel's African avenger may open doors to a new kind of hero.
Illustration by Owen Freeman

Since the rise of the tentpole, movies increasingly have moved away from cultural specificity. Sure, the $100 million-plus studio gambles of recent years have featured plenty of actors of color, even as leads, like John Boyega in the Star Wars films.

Now along comes Marvel's Black Panther, a $200 million movie co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler, an African-American man, starring an almost entirely black cast and featuring an Afrocentric plotline that eschews the prevailing tentpole formula of aiming for the broadest sensibility possible. With its domestic success all but assured (Black Panther is tracking to open in the $165 million range in North America), the question now is how much the film will alter the interest in so-called "black" studio films.

"I keep comparing it to Wonder Woman because we saw what a cultural phenomenon that movie became," says comScore's Paul Dergarabedian. "Black Panther is going to be a movie that is an important watershed moment."

Still, the biggest hurdle for Black Panther will be its international showing. Movies that feature culturally specific storylines usually receive a cold shoulder abroad. Girls Trip in 2017 notched only 18 percent of its $140 million total overseas. Straight Outta Compton did only slightly better in 2015, with 20 percent of its $202 million worldwide haul coming from abroad.

The success of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman — with its $822 million global haul, it's the top-grossing film directed by a woman — certainly changed the way studios think about the potential of female superhero movies. Several similar big-budget films now loom, including a Wonder Woman sequel from Warner Bros. on Nov. 1, 2019 (which will make Jenkins the highest-paid female director with a $7 million to $9 million payday and significant backend). Two others are dated for 2019 — Sony's Spider-Man spinoff Silver and Black, featuring superheroines Black Cat and Silver Sable, and Marvel's Captain Marvel — while Warners' Batgirl and Gotham City Sirens are in the works.

But how exactly Black Panther influences the major studios' willingness to greenlight a black-focused movie at a significant budget remains to be seen. So far, only one film with an African-American director, a mostly African-American cast and a mega-budget awaits: Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time, a $100 million-plus gamble for Disney that opens March 9.

Still, the dam may be poised to break. A Black Panther sequel seems all but assured, though Coogler does not have a deal to return, say sources (he's poised to executive produce Warners' Creed II next with Black Panther co-star Michael B. Jordan). The next wave of projects includes Sony's $20 million SuperFly coming June 15 and New Line's $30 million Shaft redo, with Samuel L. Jackson in the lead, set for June 14, 2019. A Girls Trip sequel is being discussed at Universal, which hopes to reteam Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Tiffany Haddish.

Black Panther also might accelerate the development at Warners of two of DC's black heroes — Justice League's Cyborg and the John Stewart Green Lantern (which already has Sterling K. Brown campaigning on Twitter for the role). And when the Solo: A Star Wars Story trailer debuted during the Super Bowl, fans immediately began lobbying for a Lando Calrissian one-off for Donald Glover.

Whether Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy moves in that direction, Marvel's Black Panther gamble already is inspiring a new generation of filmmakers who hope to be the next F. Gary Gray, perhaps the most courted black director in the wake of Compton and then The Fate of the Furious, which grossed $1.236 billion. "This film is a great example for young people of color that they can do anything — and that they won't just be the only person of color doing it," says Emerson College professor Miranda Banks, who teaches a class on race, gender and contemporary Hollywood. "In the past, Hollywood studios would commonly enlist an actor of color or a director of color, but they were often surrounded by an enormous number of established white cast- and crewmembers. What's interesting here is that there are so many people of color in front of and behind the camera who worked together and created something that is specifically a black story. That's what is exciting about it for my students and the way they talk about it."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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