For “Black Panther” fans, the news that on April 18 the movie will become the first to open in Saudia Arabia in 35 years, ending a strict religious ban on cinema exhibition, was cause for celebration. “Black Panther is going to open in theaters in Saudi Arabia, a country where women were not allowed to drive until 2017,” noted Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan, pointing out the movie’s depiction of the Dora Milaje, an all-female order of elite warriors. “#WakandaForever,” tweeted the screenwriter Eric Haywood, noting that the development could only add to the list of the movie’s impressive accomplishments, which have combined to smash stereotypes about how well movies with black casts can perform at the box office.
What you see depends on where you sit — that’s true of politics, international relations and even crowd-pleasing Disney blockbusters. “Black Panther” may read as exhiliratingly feminist and anti-colonialist when it opens in Saudi Arabia, playing in AMC theaters that the company’s CEO believes will not be segregated by gender. The movie might also come across as a celebration of monarchy and as an argument that sophisticated rulers should get involved in the affairs of other nations, which of course it is. Both messages could be convenient for Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has ruthlessly consolidated power at home even as he has branded himself abroad as a social modernizer willing to let women drive, acknowledge that Jews deserve a nation-state in Israel and, of course, re-open movie theaters.
There’s no question that this development is a victory for “Black Panther” and Disney. But as Saudi Arabia sorts through what movies it will and won’t allow, it’s worthwhile to remember that spreading American values through cinema is far from a straightforward process. It’s easy to take Saudi Arabia’s theaters as a sign of a new openness to foreign values. But the truth is that American movie studios need access to foreign markets just as much — if not more — than citizens of other countries might need exposure to American ideas.
The Motion Picture Association of America’s annual report on the theatrical and home entertainment market found that in 2017, the international box office rose 7 percent to $29.5 billion, even as theater receipts in the United States and Canada fell 2 percent from 2016. Box office in China alone rose 21 percent in 2017, and the number of movie screens in the Asia Pacific region rose 16 percent in 2017. The region also has the largest number of especially profitable Premium Large Format screens in the world; at 1,397, it’s more than the 1,115 in theaters in the United States and Canada. And it isn’t merely that international audiences are spending more on movie tickets: International spending on digital media jumped from $13.1 billion in 2016 to $18.46 billion in 2017, a 41 percent rise.
This might suggest that audiences worldwide are hungry for American content and receptive to the ideas expressed in it. On a less optimistic note, the figures are a reminder that American studios and moviemakers have to be attentive to what will play in Puyang as well as in Peoria.
If that only means that American artists and the giant corporations that pay to make their movies have to be more thoughtful about how they represent people from other cultures, that could be a win. Getting access to Saudi moviegoers, for example, could lead Hollywood to abandon years of lazy depictions of Muslim terrorists from not-always-specified Middle Eastern countries, and China’s growing box office power could prompt more roles for great Chinese and Chinese American actors.
But what international audiences crave isn’t always going to be predictable, and it’s not always going to conform to American ideas of what progress looks like. “The Great Wall,” a movie much-maligned in America for casting Matt Damon as the main character in a story about using China’s most famous landmark to fight dragons, hauled in $170 million from Chinese movie theaters.
And in order to get to ordinary people in other countries, American movies often have to go through those countries’ governments. In China, that means winning the approval of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which monitors films for violations that range from jeopardizing China’s territorial integrity to promoting gambling, cults, obscenity or superstition. The AMC theaters that will be opening in Saudi Arabia are doing so under a license from the country’s Ministry of Culture; Adam Aron, who runs the company, has acknowledged that the process of bringing movies to the formerly closed kingdom “will be a trial and error situation as the ministry takes the temperature of the populace.”
American moviegoers still matter. But the entertainment industry is walking closer and closer to a line where certain American values give way to those of Saudi or Chinese censors. Getting “Black Panther” into reopened Saudi cinemas will help the film and its director, Ryan Coogler, as the movie runs up its box office. But let’s not be too quick to declare it a win for American ideas.