On Business: "Ahead of our Modeling"

By | Monday, February 26, 2018 Leave a Comment
I read this Hollywood Reporter article yesterday in which they talk about how Black Panther continues to do exceptionally well at the box office...
  • The top second weekend of all time behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • The fourth movie to cross $100 million in its second weekend
  • Tied with Jurassic World in reaching $400 million faster than any film in history behind The Force Awakens
  • Already the top-grossing February movie of all time domestically
... and so on.

The article notes that, while still excellent, the international box office numbers aren't quite as record-breaking in other countries, but it still has yet to open in Russia, China, and Japan -- three very large movie markets. So final projections are naturally still sketchy, but many folks are easily counting on something north of $600 million.

All of those great numbers are easy to catch and smile about in the article. But on a subsequent reading, I caught something a bit darker that the "everything is amazing" tone of most of the reporting around the movie...
"The movie continues to play ahead of our modeling," says Disney's film distribution head Dave Hollis. "It has become a cultural phenomenon. This is a movie audiences were hoping for, and that delivered beyond expectations."
It looks optimistic enough, doesn't it? But let's sit back a moment to reflect on: "The movie continues to play ahead of our modeling."

Why do you suppose that is? I mean, Disney has been in the film business for a century now. They've shown repeatedly that they're experts at this sort of thing. And yet, not only were their initial projections way, way off but they had to keep revising opening weekend estimates all through opening weekend and into that Monday. And they still missed it by around $25 million! How did these people who have been doing this type of thing for decades suddenly miss so widely?

In a word: racism.

I'm not saying that anyone doing the actual calculations here is a racist, mind you, but the system as a whole is set up with very racial prejudices built into it. Essentially, the models aren't designed to take into account Black people.

The final first weekend total of Black Panther was $242 million, right? If you remove the 40% of the movie-going audience that was Black (which it was) and then remove half of those people again (based on anecdotal evidence, I'm guesstimating half of the Black audience saw the movie twice on average opening weekend) that would put the box office at $96.8 million -- right about where the initial projections were. If you want to be generous and add back in that 13% of the overall population that is Black, that still only brings you up to $109.4 million -- right about where the first revised set of projected estimates were.

That's back of the envelope math to be sure, but it certainly seems to suggest that Disney's "modeling" saw this film as just another superhero film in the Marvel franchise, and discounted what having a Black-written, Black-directed, Black-acted, Black-designed movie set in Africa about Africans might mean. I can kind of understand how your typical fanboy might miss that, being somewhat blinded to that by virtue of it being the last MCU film of "Phase Three" before getting to Infinity War but that the Hollywood folks were seemingly oblivious to this too suggests a cultural blindness. They couldn't see the film beyond what it originally slated on paper to be before Ryan Coogler was hired. Their cookie cutter models assume that all films are made by white men primarily for white audiences. They don't account for A) large numbers of Black audiences and/or B) how Black audiences buy movie tickets compared to white audiences. (That second part is how/why they kept revising their projection numbers during opening weekend; the incoming data they were paying attention to -- online sales made in advance of actually going to the theater -- wasn't taking into consideration audiences who just rolled up to the ticket window a few minutes before showtime.)

I am absolutely over-simplifying the hell out of this, but that's basically what happened. The models Disney used were dismissive of and/or ignored Black demographic habits and consequently they totally botched every single one of their projections.

One of the hopes a lot of people have right now is that Black Panther's success will prove to Hollywood executives that you can make a successful film by/about/featuring Black people. I'm skeptical, personally, but we'll see. I think one of the other hopes we should have, too, though is that whatever models are used to predict a movie's success will also be revised so as not to discount large swaths of potential audiences. But, frankly, I'm even more skeptical there.
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