Christopher Nolan’s upcoming movie “Tenet” was supposed to restart Hollywood after a spring of layoffs* and furloughs.* The film’s release has since been delayed twice; from July 17th to July 31st, and then again from July 31st to its current date, August 12th. Though “Tenet” — should it hit screens mid-August — may serve as a box-office barometer for studios hoping to release blockbusters during a global pandemic, Hollywood’s comeback must be measured not by the dollars it generates going forward, but by the content.
Since George Floyd’s murder on May 25th 2020, many Hollywood studios have expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Disney studios, for instance, has released a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, donated money to their causes, and released some of their titles concerning Black experiences in America for free. All of these gestures are emblematic of the industry’s response as a whole, and though they’re necessary steps along the road to meaningful change in America’s movie industry, they fail to concretely dismantle the industry’s economic and representational inequalities.
A proper statement from Disney, and many other studios, for this movement starts with acknowledging a history few people seem to be talking about: the wealth production companies basked in prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and deem necessary to tell less “traditional” stories, grew out of decades of systemic racism, and almost exclusively white-male storytelling.
Franchise-building — making multiple, interconnected movies in the same cinematic universe — is one of Hollywood’s oldest, most profitable practices, yet the process emblematic of the larger problem. Zooming in on superhero franchise-making trends, David Sims of The Atlantic asked Anthony and Joel Russo to comment on the current franchise-building formula in Hollywood, where studios, “build up capital to spend it on ‘riskier’ stuff[.]”*
Joe Russo gestures towards the sinister systemic machine implied by Sims’ question, answering, “You’d hope that decisions would be made irrespective of the financials, but ultimately it is called show business, and things are driven by dollars and cents,” before pivoting to the system’s positives: “What’s great about audiences today is that voices can be heard, and people can collectively ask for things from their storytellers and receive them.”
A quick glance at upcoming projects in The Marvel Cinematic Universe — Disney is Marvel Studio’s parent corporation — might prove Joe Russo’s point. Marvel’s next wave of titles will be amongst the most diversely cast films in the studio’s catalogue. “Black Panther II,” “Black Widow,” “The Eternals,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and “Thor: Love and Thunder” will all feature some combination of non-white, women, and queer characters in prominent roles, and be released in the next two years.*
Yet, releasing movies featuring a queer character — Kevin Feige, Marvel’s chief creative officer, and Tessa Thompson have hinted that Valkyrie might “find her queen” in “Thor: Love and Thunder”* — or a Pakistani-American actor playing a titular role, or a Canadian-Chinese actor as a main character twelve years and twenty two movies into their franchise-building
endeavors points to Marvel’s and Disney’s about content that isn’t centered on white-male- dominant stories. It’s great that audience demographics can influence studios decision-making, but — as Russo himself points out — the audience is not the bottom line. The bottom line is money — bankability.
This attitude isn’t really anything new for a Hollywood production studio; a simple numbers dive into the directors and principle characters of the preceding twenty-two Marvel movies offers a sobering reminder of just how “risky” major entertainment studios usually deem non-white-male stories and storytellers.
As of January, 2020, seventeen people have directed a Marvel movie. Of those seventeen, only one is a woman — Anna Boden, who co-directed “Captain Marvel” with Ryan Fleck — and only two are people of color — Ryan Coogler, who directed the critical and commercial success “Black Panther,” and Taika Waitit, director of the beloved “Thor: Ragnarok.”* It is hard to know how much Coogler’s and Boden’s relationship to source material factored into their hiring. Ideally, Coogler and Boden were hired for their technical prowess and sensitivity to the details of their respective scripts and characters, but it is impossible to know for sure — a corner Marvel has painted themselves into given its small sample size of female and non-white directors and main characters.
Anyone arguing that no American-made movie is untouched by a studio’s filmmaking history would be correct — the thorough extent and scope of racism is not up for debate. It’s pervasiveness in entertainment does not give Marvel and Disney a pass; rather, it is long past time for studios to start making movies and franchises from a place of inclusion and diversity — not work their way there over a decade.
Consider the success of recent hits like “Get Out”, “Us”, “Coco”, and “Crazy Rich Asians.” All fell within the top twenty in domestic box-office year end total earnings for their respective release years,* made back on average 19 times their production budgets globally,* and have Rotten Tomatoes ratings over 90 percent.* Each movie features people of color in principal roles and credits a non-white director.
Most importantly, these fur movies garnered such critical and commercial success while remaining untethered to a preceding white-male dominated franchise, whose financial security made their success possible. Director Jordan Peele has stated his desire to build his own cinematic universe, to which “Get Out” and “Us” both belong while“Coco” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have earned sequels, proving that profitable franchises can grow from “riskier” content.
If Hollywood studios were critically reexamining their past, they would understand movies like “Get Out”, “Us”, “Coco”, and “Crazy Rich Asians” must be the way of the future.
The success of these four movies should not diminish the important accomplishments of filmmakers like Coogler, Waitit, and Boden, who worked within Marvel’s ranks to produce films
which invite new types of audiences to see themselves on America’s big screen. Just imagine what our entrainment landscape would look like if Coogler, Waitit, and Boden, had been allowed in on the ground floor.
So, while major production companies like Disney finally push towards diversifying their narrative output, we must be honest with ourselves: it took a global pandemic, hundreds of protests around centuries of racial injustice, and senseless police brutality caught on camera for Hollywood executives and studios to publicly commit to Black Lives Matter. As long as Hollywood fails to recognize the reverberations of its racist past, it will continue to deprive non- white storytellers of equality, justice, and opportunity — all for an arbitrary bottom line.
*https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/2017/, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/2018/, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/2019/
- * https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Get-Out-(2017)#tab=summary, https://www.the- numbers.com/movie/Us-(2019)#tab=summary, https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Coco- (2017)#tab=summary, https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Crazy-Rich-Asians- (2018)#tab=summary,
- * https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/get_out, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/us_2019, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/coco_2017, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/ crazy_rich_asians