Oscars: Will 'Rocky' Spinoff 'Creed' Match Its Predecessor's Success?

Illustration by: Remie Geoffroi

Nearly 40 years ago, Sylvester Stallone upended the awards race with his classic. Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan now are trying for a repeat.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

It's almost deja vu all over again. Thirty-nine years ago a little boxing picture called Rocky arrived seemingly out of nowhere. Its star, Sylvester Stallone, was a virtual unknown, but the 1976 movie, made for just over $1 million, collected $225 million worldwide to become that year's top-grossing film. Even more significantly, its tale of a triumphant underdog struck a nerve — with both the general public and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Rocky was nominated for 10 Oscars and won three, including best picture, besting competitors Taxi Driver, Network and All the President's Men.

Nearly 40 years later, Creed, the seventh movie in the Rocky franchise, appears to be riding a similar wave. The $35 million movie, which MGM produced in association with Warner Bros.' New Line unit, grossed $64.6 million in its first two weekends. And it appears to be catching a cultural wave of its own. While the movie barely figured in most of the awards-season handicappers' early prognostications, Stallone — who takes a secondary role in the new film as he coaches Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky's old rival and later friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) —  has emerged as a real supporting actor contender, having just secured a Golden Globes nomination, which could pave the way for further Academy Award consideration. And the buzz also is building for the smart way that director Ryan Coogler, who wrote the film's adapted screenplay along with Aaron Covington, has reshaped the franchise to speak to a new, multicultural generation.

Back in the '70s, the first Rocky snuck up on folks. Producer Irwin Winkler recalls standing outside a small theater in New York when the film first opened and being handed a New York Times in which critic Vincent Canby panned the movie. "I was shaken," he remembers, "but then Peter Falk comes out of the theater and says, 'Congratulations.' I said, 'But look at the terrible reviews.' He said, 'Irwin, go inside. The audience is cheering!' "

This time, the word from The New York Times was a lot more encouraging. In one of the first signs that the new film could go the distance, A.O. Scott described a critics' screening at which, when composer Bill Conti's familiar Rocky theme song finally played, "the audience burst into spontaneous applause." Winkler wasn't surprised since, he says, there had been a couple of test screenings in September "that went through the roof." Still, Creed flew under the radar. "We didn't want to spend time going off to film festivals and not finishing the movie right," he says.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros., which was busy trumpeting such movies as Black Mass and Mad Max: Fury Road, hadn't yet pushed Creed to the fore, but insiders insist a plan always was in place that took its cues from the strategy the studio followed with 2006's Oscar-winning The Departed, which proved itself first at the box office before making its awards bid. And, over the past few weeks, the studio has begun sending out screeners and is planning an Academy screening with the filmmakers on Dec. 23.

So far reactions are enthusiastic. Ava DuVernay led a series of tweets with "My admiration for Ryan Coogler and @creedmovie is so massive, I don't know where to begin." In a tweet of his own, writer-director Phil Lord added, "In a great year for movies, I think Creed may be the most important."

Before successful Oscar campaigns were expected to have winning narratives, the original movie succeeded because everyone knew that the young Stallone had gambled all, agreeing to sell the script only if he was allowed to star. Coogler, who burst on the scene with his 2013 indie Fruitvale Station, in which Jordan also starred, tells an equally compelling story of bonding with his father over repeat screenings of Rocky II and then convincing Stallone he'd do justice to the Rocky legacy.

Then there's that zeitgeist question. "Forty years ago we'd been through Vietnam, Watergate, and along came this movie that said, 'If you can believe in yourself, you'll be OK,' " says Winkler. "Now, amid all the talk of race relations, here comes a film about a white, middle-class pug who basically becomes a father figure to a young African-American male. We want to believe that that's possible and that America can come together."