GUEST COLUMN: Diversity Matters at the Box Office

by Phil Contrino, Director of Media and Research, National Association of Theatre Owners

For years now, the exhibition community has been calling for diversity in content. Diversity in this context not only relates to casting and the stories that are being told, but also to the release calendar. An assortment of content spread throughout the year will lead to a strong box office. We seem to have turned a corner on this.

Director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther represents a historic moment for the African American community. The outpouring on social media for the film was staggering from the time the first trailer hit to the start of public screenings. Would Black Panther have had the same cultural impact if it had been released straight to streaming? Of course not. Pictures on Twitter of people in a crowded theater lobby with big smiles on their faces help create moviegoing fervor.

Black Panther is the first February release to earn $1 billion globally. The notion that audiences will only show up in droves during the summer and around the holidays is now officially dead. Content dictates when people will turn out, not the date.

During the weekend of March 9–11, films directed by African Americans—Black Panther and Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time—occupied the top two spots at the box office. That’s what progress looks like. The first quarter of 2018 also provided other examples of diversity. Tomb Raider delivered an action film with a female lead—still a rarity, but likely to become less so in the years to come. Love, Simon gave gay teens a love story they could relate to. Pacific Rim Uprising put John Boyega front and center.

The Oscars helped on the diversity front in a big way this year. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro further cemented his status as an elite helmer with a Best Director win, joining fellow Mexico natives and Oscar winners Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón. The success of these three visionaries—along with robust box office from Coco and other titles aimed at Latino audiences—will hopefully inspire a new generation to tell stories on the big screen. For our industry to survive and prosper, young moviegoers need to feel that they are represented. Ask any number of film directors working today what made them want to direct and you’ll almost certainly hear how they were wowed by a theatrical experience at a young age.

Best Director nominations for Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig boosted their power. Peele is one of the best advocates for the theatrical experience we have. While Get Out was filling auditoriums, Peele famously tweeted: “Btw, ‘Get Out’ isn’t a Redbox, Vod, itunes movie. If you don’t see it with the theater energy, you’ll miss the full intended experience.” After winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, Peele thanked the people who bought tickets to his film. Gerwig is also a huge advocate for theatrical. In a recent New York Times interview she said, “Going to the movies always starts with one person saying to another, ‘Let’s go out.’ And that means that you are willingly taking yourself out of your comfort zone and allowing yourself the possibility of transformation. I like that, and even if it is something that is swimming against the current, I think I’m just going to keep at it. I’m a good swimmer.”

We don’t think Greta is swimming against the current. She’s swimming right along with it.