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Why ‘Black Panther’ Saved the First Quarter Box Office From Disaster

The movie business owes Ryan Coogler and his Marvel team a debt of profound gratitude.

Had Coogler and company not pulled off the massive cultural and financial success of “Black Panther,” the industry would be emerging from a long and brutal winter. As it stands, the Marvel movie about the king of Wakanda is the only new release in the past three months to achieve blockbuster status. The film’s outsize success is the sole reason that the domestic box office through the first quarter is running flat with revenues from 2017. It’s yet another illustration of the new commercial dynamics in Hollywood — the business has increasingly been propped up by a handful of record-shattering hits, while other studio releases struggle, and largely fail to secure a foothold.

“It’s a little unsettling,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “I don’t like to be all doom and gloom, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what audiences want outside of Marvel, Pixar, and Blumhouse movies.”

As it stands, domestic revenues are hovering at roughly $2.6 billion through Thursday. “Black Panther,” with a Stateside gross of $612 million, is responsible for roughly a quarter of that figure. Last year, revenues were more evenly distributed among first quarter debuts. Although “Beauty and the Beast” was a juggernaut, earning $504 million over its life cycle, seven other films earned more than $100 million, among them such zeitgeist-defining successes as “Get Out” and “Logan.”

First quarter offerings in 2016 only counted four $100 million-plus grossers in their ranks, but three of them (“Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Zootopia,” and “Deadpool”) netted more than $300 million apiece. In contrast, 2018 has only hosted two movies that have grossed north of $100 million domestically, “Black Panther” and “Peter Rabbit.” “Fifty Shades Freed” should cross that barrier in the coming days, but it’s still a paltry showing.

“Black Panther’s” dominance is further proof that Disney is in a league of its own. By controlling Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar, and soon most of Fox’s film and television assets, the Mouse House is establishing a virtual hegemony over the entertainment business and its hottest brands. Disney now commands more than 32% of the theatrical market share, far outstripping its next closest rival Sony, which has 14%.

It’s not like the major studios didn’t try to attract crowds to films without superheroes. In many cases, they spent big money and allied themselves with major stars. Disney ponied up more than $100 million bringing “A Wrinkle in Time” to the big screen, Jennifer Lawrence reunited with her “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence for “Red Sparrow,” and young adult franchise “Maze Runner” wrapped things up with “The Death Cure.” But critics weren’t kind and audiences didn’t much care for the pictures either — they either lost money or rank as commercial disappointments.

The good news is that there were a number of holiday season offerings that showed some impressive legs. After opening slowly, “The Greatest Showman” gradually gained steam, racking up more than $100 million in the new year. And “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” was indefatigable. The family film has earned more than $400 million in North America since premiering over the winter holidays.

One sore spot was “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which proved to be more front-loaded than its predecessors. After opening in December of 2016, “Rogue One” made $123 million in the next calendar year, while “The Force Awakens” earned $282 million in 2016 after scoring a massive December 2015 debut. “The Last Jedi,” however, earned only $103 million of its $619.8 million domestic gross in 2018. The rest it picked up in the last month of 2017. There were also gripes that it strayed too far afield from the Jedi canon, signaling it wasn’t as universally beloved as other entries in the film series.

Looking ahead, analysts still believe that this year’s slate, which includes “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” has the potential to be among the highest-grossing in history. That has the numbers crunchers feeling optimistic.

“The year is expected to be up, if not record breaking,” said Eric Handler, an analyst with MKM Partners. “You can’t look at the box office on a quarter by quarter basis. It’s where we end up that counts.”

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