Ahead of Modeling... Again

By | Monday, September 06, 2021 1 comment
Shortly after the Black Panther movie came out, I wrote a post talking about how successful it was commercially. I wrote several, actually, but I'm thinking about this one in particular. What I called out in that piece was initial box office projections were modest, and they kept revising them upwards over and over again the entire opening weekend as the ticket sales numbers being reported were phenomenal. Their last estimate, as I recall, put it at around $220 million for opening weekend, but the actual final total was $242 million. I then called out a quote I found in a Hollywood Reporter article...
"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."

I haven't been tracking Shang-Chi as closely, but it looks like a similar pattern. Initial projections had it at around $35 million for opening weekend, but the latest numbers I'm seeing as I'm writing this have it just shy of $90 million. And the various projection revisions throughout the weekend were increased repeatedly, just like they had been on Black Panther. Granted, Shang-Chi's a considerably lower total than Panther but we're still dealing with a pandemic and a lot of people simply are not going to movie theaters at all right now, full stop.

So what happened? 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. 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 Chinese-American (and, to a lesser extent, Asian-American) people. While Shang-Chi doesn't seem to be quite as infused with Chinese culture as Panther was with African influences, most of the key decision makers are of Asian descent. The director has Japanese ancestry, the lead writer has Chinese ancestry, one of the key editors has Korean ancestry, the choreographers were from China themselves... to say nothing of a cast that is almost all visibly of Asian descent.

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 Chinese-written, Chinese-acted movie set (mostly) in China about a Chinese family might mean. I can kind of understand how your typical fanboy might miss that, being somewhat blinded to that by virtue of it being only the second MCU film of "Phase Four" 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 Destin Daniel Cretton 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 Asian-American audiences and/or B) how those 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 Asian-American 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 Shang-Chi's success will prove to Hollywood executives that you can make a successful film by/about/featuring Asian 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.

And, considering that everything I posted here starting with the third paragraph is copied verbaitum from my post about Black Panther (except for changing "Black" to "Chinese") I'd say my skepticism was well-warranted.
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Matt K said...


Copy-and-paste blogging to make a point.