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Predicting box office results on opening weekend has always been more art than science. Having said that, generally speaking, the numbers that are predicted weeks or even months ahead of time turn out to be pretty close to correct. However, in the case of Black Panther, the predictions were short by tens of millions of dollars. While predictions were rising to be as high as $170 million, the real number is actually over $200 million for Thursday night through Sunday, and will be even more when the four-day holiday weekend is taken into account.
Why was the number off by so much? There are a few reasons why this success was essentially impossible to predict
It's The First MCU Movie To Release In February
Box office predictions primarily come by looking back at similar situations for similar movies and looking at how those films did. When you release new Star Wars movies all in mid-December or Pirates of the Caribbean movies on Memorial Day Weekend all the time, you can look at how previous films did, make some adjustments based on how the franchise is being viewed currently, and come up with a pretty good guess of what the final numbers will be.
The equation for Black Panther probably goes something like this: The biggest domestic opening weekend Marvel has ever had was for The Avengers at $207 million. However, that movie had all of Marvel's biggest names in one film, it was also released in May, which has become part of the summer movie season and people are more apt to go to the movies then. Black Panther is the first time this character had a starring role, and the movie is coming out in February, a much slower cinema month.
On the other hand, Deadpool was a superhero movie that was also released in February that was also the first time out for the character. It's a closer comparison to Black Panther. It did $132 million on opening weekend. But Black Panther is part of the MCU and the character did create some fans in his one previous appearance, which Deadpool didn't have. Predicting Black Panther would do better than Deadpool made sense, but it's essentially impossible to guess by how much.
Infrequent Moviegoers Can't Be Predicted
The problem with the normal model, in the case of Black Panther, is that studios are only able to base predictions on the people who went to the movies last time. This usually works because, especially in the case of franchises, on an opening weekend you're likely to only draw in die-hard fans. You're not going to get a large number of new fans to a series on opening weekend. Regardless, you're dealing with a known pool of potential ticket buyers, a class of people known as "moviegoers."
However, what's clear here is that Black Panther drew a significant quantity of people to the theater that, quite simply, don't usually go to the movies. An MPAA study from 2016 found that African Americans make up 15% of frequent moviegoers, however, according to the demographics from ComScore, African-Americans made up 37% of the opening night audience for Black Panther. Based on the numbers, we can be confident that more traditional moviegoers didn't stay home, but a lot of additional people went to the movies this weekend. How do you predict how many people who don't go to movies will go to your movie? You can't.
It's A Shared Experience
It was clear leading into this past weekend that Black Panther wasn't just a movie, it was an event. While the character wasn't the first black superhero, he was the first of the current crop of superhero films that have come out when the genre is at the top of the entire industry. African-Americans wanted to see this happen. They wanted to see themselves represented on the big screen. They wanted to be there opening weekend when it all started. This wasn't a case of a bunch of individuals or couples going to the movies in droves. This was groups of people going together.
This is reminiscent of when Wonder Woman came out last year. Box office expectations for that movie actually had people worried because they were looking low, but it proceeded to have a massive (though not this massive) opening weekend and continued to be strong for several weeks. This came from multiple generations of women going to the movies together. The same thing is happing with Black Panther right now.
When you put something on screen that's never been there before, you're going to attract different audiences. They're superhero movies, sure, and superhero movie fans showed up. But this time, so did everybody else.