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Black Panther enthralls Chinese movie goers, defies overseas expectations

With a billion dollars in global box office, it's killing the myth that "black movies don't travel."

A February 2018 advanced screening of Black Panther
A February 2018 advanced screening of Black Panther in Houston, Texas. CREDIT: Bob Levey/Getty Images for IMAX

For weeks, a nagging questions lingered in the minds of nervous Hollywood executives: Would Black Panther — the unabashedly Afrocentric superhero movie — find an audience in a place like China? The answer, it would appear, is a resounding yes.

Marvel’s hit movie starring Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o has taken in more than a billion dollars at movie houses across the globe, industry bible Variety wrote on Saturday. It is just the fifth movie in history to hit that historic milestone.

The Hollywood Reporter wrote that in the all-important Chinese market, Black Panther debuted this weekend with a phenomenal $66.5 million opening weekend, among the top five launches for any superhero flick in history.

Despite its historic success in the United States, where Black Panther has become something of a cultural phenomenon — breaking records and eliciting a devoted following of fans hungry for an upbeat, Hollywood film with a black starring cast — it was far from certain how the film would fare in countries without a sizable black population.

Some industry experts even went so far as to say that the film’s chances of being a hit in China seemed rather dim.

“It’s not that the Chinese film authorities actively discriminate against films with black actors. But a big part of their job is to import movies that will succeed at the local box office, and their experience and instincts tell them that such films haven’t typically been embraced by China’s moviegoers,”  industry analyst Rob Cain wrote in Forbes earlier this year.

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Stan Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in the Chinese film industry, told The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, that Black Panther represented “a real test case” as to whether a film with a mostly black cast can sell movie tickets overseas.

“It will be interesting to see how it’s discussed in the blogs and on social media once it comes out, and whether the race of the actors is even raised as an issue, or if it’s just viewed as another superhero film. I’m inclined to think it will be more of the latter,” Rosen said.

Cain pointed to the poor showing in China by one movie, a 2010 remake of Karate Kid, with African American film star Jaden Smith and film martial arts legend Jackie Chan, which some feared augured the path forward for all movies with black protagonists in China. The movie was expected to reap a box office bonanza, but instead earned a paltry $7 million at Chinese theaters.

That clearly has not been the case for Black Panther, however. Its international success — not just in Asia, but in Europe as well — has helped break “unwritten Hollywood rules,” Jeff Bock, a senior analyst at entertainment industry tracker Exhibitor Relations, told the New York Times.

“I think about it like a wall crumbling,” Bock told the newspaper. “In terms of Black Panther, no studio can say again, ‘Oh, black movies don’t travel, overseas interest will be minimal.'”