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“Wakanda Forever” broke a box office record, but Disney is still prepping for economic winter

This weekend, Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever triumphed over covid-19 production delays and the death of its lead actor, Chadwick Boseman, by becoming the second-biggest domestic opening weekend of 2022. The sequel to Black Panther is also the biggest domestic box office opening for November at $180 million, beating out 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the previous record holder for the month at $158 million.

Globally, the Black Panther sequel pulled in about $330 million. That’s significantly less than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Doctor Strange 2), which drew $450 million worldwide during its opening weekend. Those results don’t include China or Russia, two territories where Black Panther 2 is not being shown. In 2018, China accounted for $65 million of Black Panther’s worldwide opening box office tally, and $105 million overall.

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Wakanda Forever’s strong performance outside these markets is a good sign that the appetite for Marvel movies remains strong.

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Despite success, Disney is preparing for a recession

Disney almost certainly expected Wakanda Forever to do well based on early, favorable reactions to the film. Still, on the same day of the film’s release, the company’s CEO, Bob Chapek, sent a memo to Disney staff announcing a hiring freeze in some departments, as well as some layoffs.

“We are limiting headcount additions through a targeted hiring freeze…we will look at every avenue of operations and labor to find savings, and we do anticipate some staff reductions as part of this review,” wrote Chapek in an internal memo obtained by CNBC. “These efforts will help us to both achieve the important goal of reaching profitability for Disney+ in fiscal 2024 and make us a more efficient and nimble company overall.”

The move, which came just three days after Disney’s fourth-quarter earnings (pdf) report on Nov. 8, is designed to insulate the company from a potential recession-related downturn in 2023. So far, there are not many signs of weakness in Disney’s streaming or theatrical units. Overall, Disney’s streaming service is thriving, adding 12.1 million Disney+ subscribers in the fourth quarter and 14.6 million subscribers across all streaming services (including Hulu and ESPN+).

Disney hopes the Marvel machine keeps delivering in 2023

Disney says its streaming operations will be profitable by 2024 with a significant share of revenue coming from advertisers. The ad-supported streaming option, launching on Dec. 8, already has more than 100 advertisers signed up, said Chapek during the company’s earnings conference call.

Disney also has a solid lineup of new movies in 2023, but few proven blockbusters on par with Doctor Strange 2 and Wakanda Forever. The three major films being released are Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (a profitable but hardly blockbuster franchise); The Marvels, a relatively new entry in the company’s superhero lore that relies on storylines established in Captain Marvel, WandaVision (via its newly super-powered Monica Rambeau character), and Ms. Marvel; and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 . Among the three, only Guardians, which drew $146 million for its domestic opening in 2017, has a track record approaching that of Doctor Strange 2 and Wakanda Forever.

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