It may seem like a rough patch, but it’s really the on-ramp to a new, inclusive reality
This past weekend Black Panther broke all sorts of records, becoming 1) only the fifth film with a $200m+ opening frame, 2) the best February opening weekend of all time, 3) the best non-summer opening weekend of all time, 4) the highest-grossing film both from a black director and with a largely black cast and 5) the rare example of a tentpole blockbuster whose audience isn’t predominantly Caucasian.
The movie received a substantial campaign that focused on director Ryan Coogler and how he worked to tell a story of the African and black experience. That was supported by a continued focus on not just star Chadwick Boseman but also Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o who play members of King T’Challa’s protective guard, frequent Coogler collaborator Michael B. Jordan and breakout star Letitia Wright, who plays the genius inventor of the technology of the fictional country of Wakanda.
Those were all important. Allowing Coogler to step into the spotlight continued Marvel Studios’ trend of allowing directors to act as more of the public face of the movie that began, really, last year with Thor: Ragnarok. And highlighting the members of the Dora Milaje took full advantage of the cultural moment we’re in right now, where women are reclaiming their agency.
Outside of that, the movie was sold less as a “traditional” super hero film and more a science fiction film. That came through with the frequent inclusion of the cutting edge technology available to the Black Panther and his guards, as well as the other citizens of Wakanda. Those sold audiences a super hero spin on “Afrofuturism,” a fiction subgenre that takes futuristic speculation and examines it from a uniquely African viewpoint, something often lacking from sci-fi, which too often has looked and still looks predominantly white.
Black Panther and its tech-based utopia setting come at an interesting time for the science fiction genre as a whole. Annihilation, the latest science fiction drama from writer/director Alex Garland, hits theaters this week. At least it does in the U.S. as Paramount, reportedly deeming the movie too complex and intellectual, sold international rights to Netflix, which will make it available for streaming in overseas markets within two weeks.
Paramount also recently made news for selling The Cloverfield Paradox – previously titled God Particle – to Netflix for $50 million. Again, that’s because the studio lost faith in the film’s marketability. While lots of people (including myself) were wowed by the Super Bowl spot that announced the almost immediate availability of the movie, it doesn’t seem to have caught on with audiences. comScore claimed just five million people watched the movie within seven days of release, a number Netflix disputes as inaccurate even as it continues to not provide its own viewership numbers. The streaming service also recently purchased the rights to the sci-fi thriller Extinction from Universal.
So what’s going on? Why are studios seeming to run away from science fiction? Looking at recent – and upcoming – genre releases some patterns begin to emerge.
Two notes before we begin:
First, I am using what I’ll call the Brain Candy Standard. A number of critics at the time rightfully called the 1996 feature film from The Kids in the Hall “science fiction” because it takes a plausible scientific premise – in that case, the invention of a drug that makes it feel like it’s 72 degrees in your head all the time – and extrapolates on it for purpose of societal commentary.
Second, Star Wars is not science fiction and so I am not including it here. It’s fantasy, which is a different thing. Don’t @ me.
Make It Light and Breezy
The Martian has basically sold as Saving Astronaut Ryan, focusing on the quest to “Bring Him Home” more than on the fact that it takes place in a world where missions to Mars were relatively commonplace. Similarly, movies like Moon and Her weren’t positioned as science fiction but as lighthearted character examinations about men stranded in their own world, sometimes of their own making sometimes not, that would just be an amusing good time for two hours.
Avoid the Mystery Box
Director J.J. Abrams has introduced the concept of “The Mystery Box” to current audiences. It’s shorthand for slowly revealing some secret, a fancy new spin on the MacGuffin idea popularized by directors like Alfred Hitchcock decades ago. But recent releases like Midnight Special, Blade Runner 2049 and others have called into question the idea that audiences want to solve a puzzle. You can even see that within the recent Star Trek films, with Paramount ditching the
Inclusion is Critical
Tell me anything anything about the story of Max (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road. I can’t. Instead what sticks in my memory and what audiences largely latched onto was the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Making women as well as people of color of all genders the focus of the story and the marketing worked there just as it did for Black Panther.
Sell it As Anything Other Than Sci-Fi
If there’s one tactic that’s proven effective time and again it’s to just not sell the movie as science fiction but to use something else as the thin end of the wedge for the audience. Some quick examples:
- Planet of the Apes Trilogy: “Come watch this cautionary tale about the hubris of man featuring amazing performances from actors whose faces you’ll never see!”
- Inception: “Come see this movie from the director of The Dark Knight about dreams and hey, it comes from the director of The Dark Knight!”
- Arrival: “Come see this story that’s kind of like War of the Worlds but is instead about how teachers and educated people are the ones who will save the world!”
- 10 Cloverfield Lane: “Come this this movie that sounds kind of like one from eight years ago but which is actually tense close-quarters horror film!”
- Passengers: “Come see Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt and…yeah, that’s all we got!”
- Pacific Rim: “Come see this movie which kind of looks like Godzilla fan-fic but which actually has a lot more going on under the surface!”
Not all of those were successes with critics, audiences or either. Some were outright flops. But they all showed a desire to steer clear of sci-fi being the primary value proposition even as they maintained some of the tropes of that genre in actual execution.
So what’s coming next?
The campaign for Ready Player One has been less about its dystopian setting than it has promised 2+ hours of pop culture nostalgia from Steven Spielberg, who’s responsible for much of the landscape being mined here.
Disney is betting that much like Black Panther, A Wrinkle In Time will connect with audiences eager to see a black girl take the lead in saving the balance of the universe in another massive tentpole directed by a Not White Dude, in this case Ava DuVernay.
Mute, from director Duncan Jones, is another example of studios steering clear of mid-level sci-fi and so will come out this week from Netflix with a minimal campaign that seems designed to not connect with audiences.
There’s more after that, of course. But it certainly seems like we’re at a turning point for sci-fi as a whole. If you’re trying to sell a movie that’s not A) Based on an existing franchise in some way or B) Coming from a diverse cast and crew you’ve got a tough road ahead. Ultimately that’s a good thing since it infuses the genre with a new generation of voices that have previously been excluded because studios felt they wouldn’t appeal to largely white fanboys. Right now we’re in a transition era where there’s some shaking out happening – hence all the movies being dumped to Netflix or VOD – but eventually it will become a much-needed norm.