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The Big BlacKkKlansman Box Office "Surprise" You Should Really See Coming

The industry has a habit of under-projecting the box office for black-led films (ahem, Black Panther): Will Spike Lee's latest joint follow the trend?

by | August 10, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by David Lee /© Focus Features)

Don’t be surprised if BlacKkKlansman defies box office expectations this weekend, and Marvel Studios’ biggest superhero can tell you why.

Earlier this month, Marvel’s Black Panther crossed $700 million dollars at the domestic box office, and in doing so cemented its place in the record books – again. Ryan Coogler’s game-changing comic-book adaptation now sits behind only JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens and James Cameron’s Avatar as the third biggest domestic earner of all time. But reading the press in the lead-up to its release, you would never have expected Panther to have quite this much bite.

In January, when pre-sales began, there was some indication the film was going to do special things, and early projections began to predict a $100-plus million opening. By month’s end, Black Panther became online ticket seller Fandango’s top-selling superhero movie of all time for advance tickets, and it had crushed the first-day ticket sales record, previously held by Captain America: Civil War [Editor’s note: Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango]. On February 1, with Wakanda fever taking hold and social media campaigns like #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe and #TheBlackPantherChallenge gaining momentum, Variety published a headline predicting a $150 million opening. By the week of the movie’s release in mid February, The Hollywood Reporter noted that tracking service NRG had revised its prediction for the four-day weekend to $165 million – “or more.”

When the weekend was over, and the sun had set on Killmonger in 4,020 theaters across the country, T’challa and team reigned supreme as expected, but with a figure that was totally unexpected: $202 million for its first four days.

Why did the box office projections keep shifting? And why was the magnitude of the Black Panther phenomenon so hard to see coming? It fits a pattern. Historically, films with predominantly black casts, and which target black segments of the population, are often undervalued and their earnings under-projected. Remember back in 2015, when some were projecting a $40 million opening for Straight Outta Compton and it opened to $60 million? We do. And we remember when Universal was predicting figures in the high teens for the first weekend of Get Out, a movie that would double that and open to $33.4 million.

The financial success of Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning movie, and more recently of surprise indie hits like this summer’s Sorry to Bother You, which had a huge per-theater-average in its first weekend – and somehow is yet to find overseas distribution – may seem to come out of nowhere. But that’s only because we continue to underestimate audiences’ desire to see this kind of content. We would underestimate Lee’s latest film at our peril. BlacKkKlansman, his most commercial and critically acclaimed non-documentary film to date – currently Certified Fresh at 98% on the Tomatometer – arrives in theaters with analysts initially projecting $8 million, but increasing that number in the last few days to $12 million or more. Forgive us if we won’t be surprised to see that prediction trounced.

(Photo by David Lee /© Focus Features)

Based on the true story of black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs, and hitting theaters on the anniversary of the Charlottesville Confederate Monument protest and counter-protest, the film has a real chance to break through to broader audiences. It’s topical, timely, and comes packed with performances that have some award prognosticators talking. So why the low projections? And, more importantly, why does this matter? Here’s one reason: BlacKkkKansman is opening on 1,500 screens this weekend, and its distributor, Focus Features, may decide to expand to more screens – but that likelihood could become less likely thanks to low box-office projections. That’s why estimates matter. If Lee defies expectations, those numbers should adjust accordingly, but that is not always the case.

Not all films with African American leads and casts outperform early projections. Films like Girls Trip (a $31.2 million opening off of $25-$28 million projections), Straight Outta Compton (a $60 million opening off of $40-$50 million projections), and most of Tyler Perry’s films certainly do – Boo! A Madea Halloween was about $10 million ahead of projections when it opened in 2016. Other films however – think Pacific Rim 2, Darkest Minds, Superfly, and A Wrinkle in Time – failed to meet industry expectations. It’s worth noting that the “surprise” successes we mentioned – Compton, Girls’ Trip, the Madea films, Get Out – were rooted in the black American experience, came from black filmmakers, and were marketed heavily to black audiences. The other set may have featured black faces in front of and behind the camera, but – excepting Superfly – blackness and race were not critical parts of the narrative. These films relied more on colorblind casting rather than an attempt to speak to, or about, a particular identity. They were also not well reviewed.

(It’s also worth noting that for all the talk of A Wrinkle of Time‘s box office weakness, it has crossed $100 million domestically, which makes director Ava DuVernay the first black female director to reach that milestone.)

When considering why films are under-projected, you need to consider the fallibility of projections themselves: some argue that the systems used to project box-office expectations are antiquated and non-inclusive, relying on surveys and limited demographics. Moreover, younger, urban, and lower-income audiences tend not to utilize advance ticket sales. Data suggests that these groups prefer to purchase tickets the week of, or just days before, release, resulting in last-minute spikes and limited presence in the early data that is used in projections.

Forbes’ Scott Mendelson, who writes one of the most trusted and voraciously updated box office columns out there, says he thinks that the projections are getting better. There was a time when POC-based films always outperformed projections, he says, but notes that “by 2014, [when] Ride Along happened, that was a major moment…nobody was surprised that it did $40 million.”

He also notes that in today’s box office climate, the real competition for a film like BlacKkKlansman is not with industry projections or its opening-weekend competition, but – like all other films – with whether people want to leave the house to watch anything at all. Marketing has been strong for BlacKkKlansman and it has a brag-worthy Tomatometer score, but that does not mean it is going to be easy to get adult filmgoers to make plans for a babysitter, leave the house, and buy tickets to an adult true-crime political comedy that doesn’t scream “must see in theaters” the way a Marvel movie might.

When it comes to movies focused on minorities, a key reason why projections are so often wide of the mark may have more to do with the lack of precedent. The industry has a sense of how a Reese Witherspoon rom-com will perform, because it’s seen a number of other Reese Witherspoon rom-coms open before. A social-issues horror flick about a WASP family preying on young black men? Not so much. Only in the past 20 to 30 years have we even seen mainstream POC content in wide release. And even then, only sporadically.

This will make next week another interesting week to watch at the box office. The Joy Luck Club, the last wide release featuring an all Asian-American lead cast, opened in just 600 theaters when it bowed 25 years ago; Crazy Rich Asians, the first wide release with an Asian-American lead cast since then, will open on more than 3,000 screens. That is a major shift. When thinking about how it will perform, what do we have to go on?

Mendelson suggests most industry projections try to go low rather than high to prevent inflated expectations, and in the current climate, “The chance to accurately predict its box-office is little more than guesswork after a certain number.”

BlacKkKlansman at $12 million for opening weekend? Maybe. Let’s talk Monday.


BlacKkKlansman is in theaters August 10. 

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