Sunday’s headlines for the weekend box office went something like this:
“Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Stuns With $70 Million Opening Weekend” (Variety)
“Box Office: Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Opens to Shocking $70.3M” (Hollywood Reporter)
“Get Out! Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ shatters records with $70.3M” (Associated Press)
This kind of talk was the result of early box office predictions for the horror flick starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, where Universal, the studio behind Peele’s sophomore hit, and experts that ranged between $35 million and $40 million. Even the pre-movie program Noovies had “Us” at a low standing in its fantasy movie box office game.
Shocking! Stunning! Shattering! Who could have thought that audiences would outdo what experts could predict.
Well, no one was paying attention to Twitter or Rotten Tomatoes in the weeks leading up to this past weekend.
Buzz was high when “Us” opened South By Southwest in Austin, Texas, earlier this month, with reviews giving the film an early 100 percent approval before slipping into the 90 percent range. Universal also booked special screenings with black critics who are usually underrepresented in the field on both coasts.
Before early screenings last Thursday, the box office prediction stories were out, with the low-ball $35 million prediction in play, often pitting targeted audiences against each other. As Rebecca Rubin described in a March 19 report:
As the only new nationwide release this weekend, “Us” will face the strongest competition from “Captain Marvel” as the female-fronted adventure starring Brie Larson enters its third outing in theaters.
Rubin’s description ignores that “Us” is a female-fronted horror, as though audiences can only decide on movies according to gender or race. Yet, last week, a report showed how 2018 global box office numbers reached $41 billion, with three of the top five money-making movies having audiences being less than 50 percent white.
However, on Twitter other movie insiders were warning not to underestimate the draw of films with a black cast. Franklin Leonard, founder of “The Black List” and a film executive, was out early before Thursday night’s screenings:
Always. Take. The. Over. On. Industry. Tracking. Of. Black. Movies.
I don't know how many times I have to tell y'all this. https://t.co/sS5YGyxU0t
— Franklin Leonard (@franklinleonard) March 21, 2019
Matthew A. Cherry, a football player-turned-filmmaker who also works for Peele’s Monkeypaw Production, also weighed in early as Thursday.
Over. We want the record! https://t.co/pHYYkWwjM7
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) March 21, 2019
After the box office numbers came in Sunday, Twitter was buzzing with “I told you so” tweets.
Those who are “stunned” might want to stop underestimating marginalized filmmakers. Because none of us are surprised. https://t.co/RYlSCOV8yO
— April (@ReignOfApril) March 24, 2019
"stuns" as if zillions of people weren't saying $30 mil or whatever was laughably low https://t.co/58mOx9Wh4i
— Danny Bowes (@bybowes) March 24, 2019
Unfortunately, this back-and-forth with box office predictions and outcomes surrounding nonwhite-led films and the reaction to their success has been ongoing, with headlines not getting any better. In November 2013, “Best Man Holiday” beat “Thor: The Dark World” at the box office, and USA Today used the headline, ‘“Holiday’ Nearly Beat ‘Thor’ as Race-Themed Films Soar.” The headline was later reworked, but the damage was done. The holiday romantic comedy, starring Nia Long and Taye Diggs, could only be characterized by the race of its cast, not by the plot or themes. In an Los Angeles Times article shortly after capturing box office gold, director Malcolm Lee noted what others were thinking.
“I didn’t like the thing people were saying that we were overperforming. It’s been demonstrated time and again that African American movies perform. But the reaction is still ‘wow,’ like they’re still surprised.”
Less than six years later, the “wows” and “shocks” still exist.
The box office draw from “Us” broke ground and records, including best opening for an original horror movie, original R-rated movie, and film with a black woman in a leading role.