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‘Black Panther’ Box Office Success Has Theater Owners Asking for More Diverse Superhero Movies

More “Black Panthers” and “Wonder Womans,” please.

That’s the message that John Fithian, the top lobbyist for the exhibition industry, is hoping to convey to studios in the wake of the two superhero movies’ blockbuster success. Their massive box office hauls confirm something that Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, has been pushing for years. Diversity is good for business.

“Theater owners have been asking for more diversity in movies for a long time, and by diversity we mean diversity in casting and diversity in times of the year when movies are released,” said Fithian, who notes that “Black Panther” is barreling toward the $1 billion mark at the box office, despite debuting in February.

“The traditional norm is that big movies only go in the summer and winter holiday,” Fithian said over a glass of wine at Coffee Shop, a diner and bar in Manhattan’s Union Square. “‘Black Panther’ proves if you’re good, people will come out and see you any time of the year. It also shows that a movie with an all-black cast and a black director can break records. It’s not the race or the sex of the actors in a movie, it’s the quality of the movie that matters.”

There’s been a myth that movies starring women won’t appeal to teenage boys and that movies with black actors won’t appeal to overseas audiences. Films such as “Wonder Woman,” however, have been able to draw male and female ticket buyers in big numbers, while “Black Panther” has done an impressive $304 million overseas. Fithian hopes that the grosses will embolden studios to bankroll more movies with diverse casts and to champion stories with female and black protagonists.

“We want these movies to set a precedent and not be one-offs that people forget about,” Fithian said. “We’d like to see this more and more and more. There should be a Latino superhero movie or an Asian superhero movie. The more you have different types of people in these movies, the more you appeal to different types of audiences.”

“Black Panther,” a Marvel movie, is backed by Disney, which will offer up a female-led superhero movie with “Captain Marvel.” The studio is also showing its commitment to diversity with next month’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” which is the first $100 million movie directed by a black woman (Ava DuVernay). However, Disney is at the heart of a major corporate deal that could limit the number of movies that make their way to theaters. The company is buying the bulk of Fox’s film and television assets. Most analysts believe that the combined studio will greenlight fewer pics than the two studios produced when they existed separately.

The Disney-Fox acquisition certainly raises the question of product supply, because Disney has a model of making huge global blockbusters only, and Fox has a more diverse model of making global blockbusters, mid-budget movies, and smaller Fox Searchlight titles that do well and get awards,” Fithian said. “Exhibitors need all of those types of movies.”

Fithian noted that the deal hasn’t been approved by the government, but he said that conversations he’s had with the companies suggest that Disney will still make a “range of movies” after it buys Fox. At the same time, the NATO chief is pushing other studios to fill the gap and banging the drum for more mid-budget movies to complement the onslaught of comic book fare.

“If you look at the breakdown of the top movies of the last five years, we have more global blockbusters than ever before and a good, steady stream of independent, intelligent, award-worthy movies, but we don’t have as many mid-budget movies,” Fithian said. “That’s what I’d like to see change.”

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