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Box Office: Early Summer Tentpoles Cash In, Fueled by Diverse Stars



Black moviegoers represented 35 percent of ticket-buyers flocking to see Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther on the film’s opening weekend in February 2018, more than triple the norm. The Marvel Studios movie was widely credited as a groundbreaker: a blockbuster superhero film featuring a virtually all-Black cast. The bold move paid off, as the Oscar-nominated film ultimately topped out at just north of $700 million at the domestic box office to rank as the top-grossing pic of the year.

Yet when it comes to diversity in front of the camera, progress has been sluggish for big-budget event pics despite such hits as Black Panther or the long-running Fast & Furious Franchise. The 2023 summer box office could represent a notable step forward. For three weekends in a row, pricey studio tentpoles winning the crowded box office race — and exceeding expectations — have featured leads who are Black and/or Latino: Disney’s The Little MermaidSony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. (And don’t forget about Universal’s Fast Xwhich likewise topped the box office when it opened over the May 19-21 weekend.)

“It’s exciting because it is three different studios and three different franchises. It represents an interesting shift, or a case study, as to whether a person of color can open a movie week after week,” says Paul Garnes, president of development and production at Ava DuVernay’s Array Filmworks. “Three is certainly a trend that could hopefully be a nexus or a changing point. Not everybody is going to go out and hire a person of color to play the lead, but certainly the conversation should be had.”

Rashad Robinson, president of advocacy group Color of Change, is more circumspect. “Well, we’ve seen this before. The question is not what message it sends; it’s what message Hollywood is ready to receive,” he notes.

The question is a fair one. But as moviegoing attendance stalls in the US — a trend that began long before the COVID-19 crisis struck — studio executives understand that they have to make content for all demos and feature stars who look like all members of the audience. Latinos have long gone to the movies more often than any other ethnic group in comparison with their percentage of the population. In 2019, Latinos made up 26 percent of frequent moviegoers but only 18 percent of the population, according to the MPA. Black consumers are a different story; in 2019, they made up 9 percent of frequent moviegoers but represented 12 percent of the overall population. White moviegoers, who represented 61 percent of the population, made up 55 percent of frequent moviegoers. Asians made up 7 percent of frequent moviegoers in 2019 while representing 6 percent of the population.

Paramount has tried several times to reboot its marquee Transformers franchise, to no avail (Skydance is a co-financier). The glory days that began when director Michael Bay cast a young Shia LaBeouf to play the human star alongside the heroic Autobots have ended. Now, a new era has begun for the series thanks to the strong no. 1 opening of director Steven Caple Jr.’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts.

When Caple, who earned acclaim directing Creed IIset about casting the human leads, their first choice was hot up-and-coming star Anthony Ramos of In the Heights and Hamilton fame. Days later, Dominique Fishback, whose credits at the time included Judas and the Black Messiahwas cast to star opposite Ramos (the two knew each other from their Brooklyn days).

Rise of the Beasts debuted to $61 million domestically over the June 9-11 weekend, well ahead of Bumblebee‘s three-day debut of $21.6 million in 2018 and the $44.6 million grossed by Transformers: The Last Knight in 2018. Among different ethnic groups going to see the film, Latinos bought 32 percent of all tickets, followed by white (31 percent) and Black moviegoers (21 percent). And Black audiences led all ethnic groups The Little Mermaid‘s opening weekend (35 percent). Among other relatively recent Hollywood blockbusters, white moviegoers made up 66 percent of Top Gun: Maverick‘s opening-weekend audience, followed by Latino patrons (16 percent), Black patrons (7 percent), Asians (8 percent) and Native American/Other (4 percent), according to PostTrak. Avatar: The Way of Water‘s breakdown was 47 percent, 21 percent, 11 percent, 13 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

Paramount declined to comment on plans for a sequel to Rise of the Beasts, but sources close to the film say a next installment with Caple and Ramos would be a no-brainer. And there’s talk of a GI JoeTransformers crossover based on an Easter egg at the end of the film. Adds a studio source: “There’s no question that the segment of the population going to the movies more frequently than any other is multicultural, at least domestically. International is another issue.” The Little Mermaid, for instance, has struggled badly in certain Asian markets, including China and South Korea, amid a racist backlash over casting Black actress Halle Bailey as Ariel. But worries about how certain markets will react to a casting decision are being overridden by other concerns, at least in some cases.

“Hollywood is showing a willingness to make big-budget movies that better reflect the overall population,” says Wall Street analyst Erik Handler of MKM Partners. “It’s a good step forward. The industry was getting pushback for whitewashing stories and needed to better adapt to the realities of the world.”

Opening-Weekend Scorecard: Audience Breakdown infographic

This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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