Disney, which has been on a box office tear, decided several years ago to make a concerted effort to promote diversity and equality on screen. But “Black Panther” also arrives at a time when studios have started to respond to growing pressure to make their big-budget movies more inclusive, driven in part by the recent #OscarsSoWhite movement. And with audiences increasingly inclined to stay home and watch Netflix, producing movies featuring lead characters with different skin colors, genders and sexualities is proving to be good business.
Attendance at theaters in North America, the world’s largest movie market, dropped 6 percent in 2017, hitting a 22-year low. At the same time, studios are more reliant than ever on ticket sales. Their home-entertainment businesses — negatively impacted by the rise of streaming services — are collapsing to an alarming degree. The major studios reported an 18 percent drop in holiday home-video rental and sales revenue, including video-on-demand purchases, compared to a year earlier.
“Hollywood can no longer afford to take any moviegoer for granted,” Mr. Bock said. “That is causing them to look at underserved groups where there is pent-up demand, and the black audience is one.”
Disney, which spent roughly $350 million to make and market “Black Panther,” remains cautious about declaring global victory, noting that the film will not arrive in crucial markets like China and Japan until next month. The movie, focused on one of Marvel’s lesser-known superheroes and set in the fictional country of Wakanda, will be playing in 70 percent of the world by Friday, with its rollout having started on Tuesday in the United Kingdom.
But even if “Black Panther” stumbles in some countries, it will easily become the top-grossing film by a black director and with a largely black cast in Hollywood history, surpassing “Straight Outta Compton,” which took in $214 million worldwide in 2015, after adjusting for inflation. “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, will also break box office records in North America, where ticket sales between Friday and Monday are expected to total about $165 million, an astounding start for a film released outside the holiday and summer corridors.
The record-holder for a February release is “Deadpool,” which arrived to an adjusted $159 million in 2016 and itself challenged conventional wisdom, proving that an R-rated superhero movie could strike a broad chord. “Deadpool” went on to collect an adjusted $819 million for 20th Century Fox, which will release a sequel in May.
Another test will come on March 16, when 20th Century Fox releases “Love, Simon,” a $17 million romantic comedy centered on a gay teenager. Studios have long insisted that multiplex crowds will not support same-sex love stories, dismissing “Brokeback Mountain,” which took in $231 million in 2005 for Focus Features, after adjusting for inflation, as an Oscar-boosted exception to the rule. Fox is the first major studio to take a chance on a movie anchored by a gay character in memory.
“I’m done living in a world where I don’t get to be who I am,” Nick Robinson, playing the lead role, says in the “Love, Simon” trailer. “I deserve a great love story.”
Studio chiefs keep their jobs by delivering hits, and they try to do that by avoiding constructs that have fizzled in the past. For years, female superheroes were held back by the argument — a ridiculous one in the eyes of many critics — that male ticket buyers would stay home if a woman led the action. The failures of the critically derided films “Catwoman” in 2004 and “Elektra” in 2005 were used as proof. As studios have become more reliant on overseas ticket sales, they have shunned movies that focus on black characters by citing lackluster foreign interest in films like “Dreamgirls” in 2007 and Tyler Perry’s “Madea” series.
Some film executives even cite “Get Out” as a cautionary example. That Oscar-nominated horror movie, about racism in the liberal white suburbs, collected a robust $176 million in North America but a comparatively slight $79 million overseas.
As studios embrace a wider variety of stories with more diverse casts, they have had to confront pockets of racism, sexism and homophobia. Internet trolls tried to use Facebook to organize a campaign to falsely drag down scores for “Black Panther” on the influential review site Rotten Tomatoes. Some men had a conniption when a Texas theater organized all-women screenings for “Wonder Woman.” An Alabama theater banned Disney’s live-action “Beauty and the Beast” over a gay sidekick character, creating a media frenzy.
Disney’s willingness to withstand that kind of resistance reflects the emphasis that Robert A. Iger, the company’s chief executive, has put on diverse casting and storytelling across the Magic Kingdom. As he said at Disney’s most recent shareholder meeting, referring to inclusion and equality: “We can take those values, which we deem important societally, and actually change peoples’ behavior — get people to be more accepting of the multiple differences and cultures and races and all other facets of our lives and our people.”
Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, and Alan F. Horn, Disney’s movie chairman, were eager to make “Black Panther.” But it was ultimately Mr. Iger who pushed the movie ahead, overruling those who worried that it would not generate adequate sales of related toys.
“It became a company initiative as led by Bob,” Mr. Feige said. “He holds a lot of sway, as you might imagine.” (“Black Panther,” for the record, ended up with the largest merchandise line ever for a Marvel nonsequel.)
Asked how Mr. Iger has communicated that message about diversity — in meetings? by royal decree? — Mr. Feige responded, “It’s a combination.”
Whatever the route, the directive has been received. Disney recently released Pixar’s “Coco,” centered on the festive Mexican holiday honoring the dead and with characters voiced by an all-Latino cast. Before that came “Moana,” which gave Disney a Pacific Islander princess.
The new “Star Wars” movies have been paragons of diverse casting. Coming up are live-action versions of “Mulan,” with a mostly Asian cast, and “The Lion King,” with a largely black cast. Disney’s big-budget “A Wrinkle in Time,” directed by Ava DuVernay and starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Peña and Mindy Kaling, arrives on March 9.
“We wanted to make a film with a cast that looks like you,” Ms. DuVernay said at a Disney fan event last year, “that looks like the real world.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the middle initial of Disney’s movie chairman. He is Alan F. Horn, not Alan H.
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