When “The Woman King” opens wide this Friday in theaters, it will be seeking to break new ground with American audiences, selling a story that Hollywood has almost never seen before: a female, Black African action drama.
The dilemma for the distributor, Sony, is: How do you sell a movie without a proven audience?
Most movies fall into clear-cut categories like action-adventure, horror, rom-com, sci-fi, thriller, comedy or drama. And after decades of Hollywood training, audiences immediately know if a movie is “for them.” Marketing campaigns have to aim for their core target before ever hoping to widen into the coveted four-quadrant audience.
But what about a movie that attempts to do something entirely different? With “The Woman King,” Sony has taken a $50 million leap (that’s the production budget and does not include the cost of marketing, which is estimated in the $40 million range) with a story about African history, set in Africa, with a mostly unknown, mostly female Black cast, led by an Oscar-winning actress best known for non-muscled drama, Viola Davis.
“It’s a rousing spectacle. It’s an epic action movie with epic emotion as well,” Tristar Pictures President Nicole Brown said in a chat with TheWrap at the Toronto Film Festival, where the movie had just premiered to a standing ovation. Brown said “Woman King” is intended to be a “big mainstream film” that delivers for all audiences.
“It’s ‘Braveheart’ in Africa,” she said.
But the 1995 film “Braveheart” — an underdog warrior story about a Scottish rebel in the 13th-century throwing off oppression (that won five Oscars) — was led by then-action star Mel Gibson and plugged into a history of Hollywood war stories set in Europe’s past.
And unlike “Black Panther,” the 2018 blockbuster hit set in Africa starring Chadwick Boseman, this doesn’t have the benefit of a Marvel universe fan base.
Sony, which is opening the film in 3,000 theaters, is marketing the film to audiences who skew older, prestige-oriented and Black — based on Oscar-winning Davis’s appeal and strong reviews. But they are also trying to pitch the film to younger moviegoers as an action adventure. “Successful action films headlined by women often get a significant buy-in from male audiences. At its budget level, ‘The Woman King’ will have to do that,” said Jeff Bock, a senior media analyst for Exhibitor Relations.
The film is current tracking relatively well toward an opening in the $15 million range, with a 9% first choice skewed to an older female and Black audience, according to one tracking expert.
An action film headlined by a woman that found some success was 2017’s Charlize Theron thriller “Atomic Blonde” in 2017, a $30 million production that grossed $51 million domestically and $100 million worldwide despite an R rating.
Even without significant initial turnout beyond key demos, Bock said a strong opening weekend buzz for “The Woman King” may go farther than it usually would since there are limited number of new studio releases this month. “In this depressed marketplace, sometimes being the right film at the right time is enough,” he said. “With such little competition, having strong critical and audience buzz can go farther.”
But the challenges facing “The Woman King” are still complex. The film isn’t your standard popcorn picture — telling the little-known true story of the Agojie, an all-female band of warriors who protected the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. It also includes a serious exploration of slave-trading, particularly the roles of Africans in the slave trade.
Davis, who plays the Dahomey’s fierce military leader, General Nanisca, and also produces, is not a known draw for action audiences. The rest of the cast — except for “Star Wars” alum John Boyega, who plays an African king — comprises mostly-unknown female actors.
And director Gina Prince-Bythewood is best known for her work in smaller dramas like 2000’s “Love & Basketball” and 2008’s “The Secret Life of Bees” — though she did win praise for directing the Netflix action film “The Old Guard” starring Theron.
Yet all signs point to the movie delivering. “The Woman King” has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes after about 30 reviews, and Sony and the movie’s producers expect the uniqueness of the story to play in its favor. “For the longest time, the marketplace was pitched as ‘This is X movie meets X movie,’” producer Cathy Schulman said. “Once the marketplace is so crowded because of streaming, I have a much better chance with something that is self-distinguished. You get lost in the morass. So now I say: ‘You’ve never seen this before.’”
Still, will some audiences shy away from seeing women in war paint, wielding machetes, in 19th-century Africa?
In the trailer, Sony emphasizes the action and spectacle of the women warriors. For the poster, the studio chose a mid-range shot of Davis’ Nanisca, and decided not to use an image that had a tighter image of the actress’ muscled arms, according to an individual close to the movie.
But the movie remains a leap of faith for executives at Sony’s Tristar division, who hope that they can tap into the increasingly multiracial moviegoing audience.
And the commitment to the project shows on screen. The battle scenes are epic, with hundreds of extras and the investment required to create a credible tableau of hand-to-hand combat with opposing armies. The studio even built a replica of the Agojie palace on set in South Africa, so Prince-Bythewood could shoot 360-degree scenes.
Davis is just relieved to see the film emerge after years of struggle. In an interview with TheWrap in Toronto, she said that many Hollywood studios — and directors — were afraid of the material. “It was a fight… I wish people could be a fly on the wall, so they could understand the process of getting a film made. Fighting for everything, fighting for actors, fighting for directors, for the integrity of the project,” she said, voicing exasperation at the serial rejections.
Finding a filmmaker who was both interested and met the approval of the studio proved an added hurdle. “The studio approves directors like Christopher Nolan, David Fincher. They’re busy doing other things — they’re not going to direct ‘The Woman King,'” she said. “Fighting for directors who are names but are too frightened of it.”
While Hollywood has shown some signs of openness to telling more authentic Black stories, Davis said, “We are a mystery to a lot of people. Especially in this climate.” Which is why she’s especially jubilant now. “To finally get it made, to have your feet on the soil of South Africa — it was really close to a miracle,” she said.