By Jennifer Akotoh
As the second highest grossing film of 2018 and the ninth highest grossing film worldwide, Black Panther is one of the most successful Marvel movies to date. So why then, was there such a lack of merchandise inspired by the film and its characters? This was the question that LIM Professor Regina Gwynn, a Brand & Digital Marketing Executive explored in her presentation titled Marvel’s Missing Merchandise recently at LIM College’s Fashion: Now and Then Conference in NYC. The purpose of the conference was to explore fashion’s relationship to race.
Professor Gwynn began by shedding light on the incredible success of the film and the wave of cultural appreciation that ensued for many weeks after the film’s premiere. As evidenced by many people’s Twitter feeds and Instagram timelines, “We saw lots of men and women actually dressing up to go to the movies continuing the idea of celebrating African traditional garb and products that were inspired by the movie.” From dashikis and Geles to crowns and actual drum processions, moviegoers didn’t hold back in their efforts to show their support for the film and flaunt their African pride.
In light of this fanfare and the global success of the film, Professor Gwynn “Wanted to see how these types of costumes and how this type of fashion inspiration would translate into actual merchandise after the movie premiered.” Unfortunately, many production companies neglected to capitalize off the success of the film. “Black Panther was number two on Fandango’s list of top selling merchandise of all time [yet] there were literally only eleven Black Panther toys on average in stock which is half the number of toys that were carried on average for the Justice League, one third of the number of toys that are usually carried for a Power Rangers movie and a quarter of the number of toys usually carried for Spiderman.”
I experienced this dilemma first hand. After taking my nephew to see Black Panther, I was so touched by how enamored he was with the film. Along with being his first time seeing a Marvel superhero movie, it was the first time he’d seen a hero that looked like him. When his birthday rolled around, I knew that getting him a T’Challa action figure would send him over the moon. But when I arrived at Target, I was disappointed by the lack of variety of Black Panther toys available for purchase. There were only two characters, T’Challa and Shuri as well as T’Challa’s Lexus. I couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t see Okoye, Nakia, M’Baku or other key players in the film but had come across at least five versions of Thor and the other Avengers.
As demonstrated by Professor Gwynn, even though “licensing sales surpassed over $250 million for this movie.” outlets like Hasbro, Disney, and Lego seriously dropped the ball when it came to capitalizing off the merchandising opportunities that the film presented them with. This begs the question as to why there was such an issue with production and distribution of Black Panther merchandise when there was an incredibly high demand for such products.
Gwynn suggests the reluctance could stem from the “Challenge to be authentic while avoiding cultural appropriation,” and cited the controversy surrounding Disney’s creation of costumes for movies like Moana as a key example of what happens when merchandise is done wrong. Though the line between appreciation and appropriate is thin, it is not impossible to create products that remain true to a film while respecting the culturing sensitivities associated with the franchise. Gwynn referenced multiple examples of it done right, including Black Panther official jewelry designer Douriean Fletcher’s stunning pieces inspired by the film, as well as independent vendors on Etsy that have created t-shirts and other wearable merchandise for fans of the franchise.
A sequel to Black Panther is set to begin production in 2019 but will retailers be ready this second time around? In order to avoid missing out on the profits of sales associated with the film, Gwynn encourages companies to look at and emulate “the best practices of fast fashion with [brands] like H&M and Zara in order to capitalize on opportunities as well as make sure that affordable luxury pieces are available at [places like] Macy’s, Kohls, and Amazon.” And when it comes to respecting the line between appreciation and appropriation, Gywnn simply advises not to “Overdo it, and remain authentic.”