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The competition between Hollywood studios is fierce and sharp as a spear. On the opening weekend of most films, rival executives are quick to judge (and snipe). That wasn’t so in the case of The Woman King, a Black female-led epic action-adventure that opened to a better-than-expected $19.1 million over the Sept. 16-18 weekend at the domestic box office.
“Usually, everyone is rooting against you,” says Sony Motion Picture Group co-chairman Josh Greenstein. “That’s so true, but everyone is coming together for this one. It’s a win for Hollywood,” TriStar president Nicole Brown, who guided the movie, told The Hollywood Reporter in a Sept. 20 joint interview with Greenstein.
No major Hollywood studio has taken a chance before on a historical actioner centering on an ensemble cast of dark-skinned Black women. Just as Black Panther, Girls Trip and Crazy Rich Asians were defining moments for big-screen diversity, so is Woman King.
The movie, starring Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, easily topped the box office chart after making its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, a staging area for Oscar fare.
“Like I said at #TIFF.Net, if you don’t plop down money on opening weekend, you’re not going to see … Black females leading a movie AGAIN. Please continue supporting #TheWomanKing, NOW PLAYING EXCLUSIVELY in theaters,” Davis tweeted on Sept. 18.
Moviegoers did just that. The promising opening was thanks to older females — and particularly older Black females — a demo that has been the most reluctant to return to theaters amid the pandemic. Tracking had suggested Woman King would open to no more than $15 million to $18 million.
Females made up 58 percent of Woman King’s audience, while Black moviegoers vastly over-indexed in accounting for 56 percent of ticket buyers, followed by Caucasians (23 percent), Latinos (15 percent), Asians (3 percent) and other (6 percent), according to PostTrak.
“I think this film is a definitive success, and Hollywood loves to follow success with success. So I’m proud and excited that Woman King can be a door opener for more black stories to be told. I believe it,” Brown says.
Audiences love Woman King as much as critics. The film is only the second title of 2022 to be graced with an A+ CinemaScore after blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick. Between the A+, a current Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 93 percent and stellar exits, the movie has every shot of growing its audience in the weeks ahead. And word-of-mouth will further be buoyed should Woman King land top Oscar nominations.
Adds a veteran Hollywood financier, “The Woman King has plenty of action. That action could help attract both younger moviegoers and males in the coming weeks. More importantly, the quality of the picture and the aforementioned expected positive word-of-mouth could allow the picture to cross over beyond its core audience.”
Brown — the first Black woman to lead a live-action studio label — made Woman King a priority when Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman tapped her to run TriStar. Other studios had passed on the $50 million movie that centers on the Agojie, an all-female army in the West African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When Brown told Greenstein — a marketing and distribution veteran — that she wanted to make the female Black equivalent of Gladiator, he told her to go for it (when previously pitching the film to STX, producer Cathy Schulman was offered a $5 million budget). Gina Prince-Bythewood came aboard to direct from a script written by Dana Stevens and based on a story by Maria Bello and Stevens. Sony and Tri-Star also secured a co-financing partner to mitigate its risk, eOne Entertainment.
“When we set out to make this film, we set out to tell a story that had global and universal appeal,” says Brown. “Gina and everyone else delivered. It is a huge achievement.”
Greenstein said it’s no small feat to sell a period adventure that isn’t based on existing IP or a book, “The opening shows both the strength of Black moviegoers, the core audience and moviegoers in general. People want to see all kinds of movies,” says Greenstein, noting Sony’s strong track record of turning out original films under Rothman’s rule.
“Kudos to Sony’s TriStar division for believing in The Woman King,” says one Hollywood executive. “The picture had a high risk profile, and TriStar succeeded in producing terrific art, an important picture, probably getting several Academy Award nominations, and making a nice profit.”
The ideal scenario would be for Woman King, which also stars Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin and John Boyega, to clear as much as $80 million domestically. A more conservative projection is $60 million. The film begins rolling out overseas this weekend when it debuts in Brazil in a key test for its international prospects.
It’s too early to officially talk about a sequel, but it isn’t out of the question. “It’s an interesting possibility,” says Greenstein. Adds Brown: “You’re not the first person to ask us this question.”
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