The Creed franchise is greater than a Rocky spinoff

Michael B. Jordan stars in Creed III.

Warner Bros.

LOS ANGELES — It’s an underdog story for the 21st century.

The Creed series is a Hollywood marvel in many ways. It’s a lucrative spin-off of the popular, decades-old Rocky series, but it has its own modern style and sensibility.

And while it pays homage to the star and the stories that gave it a foundation, it has flipped the script of an enduring white working-class myth by highlighting black talent on both sides of the camera.

Warner Brothers’ The upcoming Creed III, which hits theaters March 3, also sees its leading man taking the helm as director, a move Sylvester Stallone also took in 1979 with the release of Rocky II. The film will be Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut.

“Michael B. Jordan has worked on some great television series and films, and I’ve always said the best film school is on the set,” said Shawn Edwards, a film critic who serves on the board of directors of the Critics Choice Association and Co. -founder of the African American Film Critics Association. “I think it was only a matter of time until then [he] jumped behind the camera.”

Jordan’s path to directing was paved by Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed the first Creed film, and Steven Caple Jr., who directed the second. Coogler, who had yet to release his debut film Fruitvale Station, which also starred Jordan, approached Stallone about a Creed spinoff.

A few years later he finally won it for himself. Stallone starred in the first two films and co-wrote the Creed II screenplay. Stallone was not involved in the third Creed film and declined CNBC’s request for comment.

The first film, 2015’s Creed, followed Adonis, the son of Rocky’s longtime rival and later boyfriend Apollo Creed. The story explored the life of an orphan boy living in the shadow of a boxing legend and grappling with his own outsider history as he attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the ring.

“Creed” echoed many of the narrative elements of the original Rocky films, which centered on a so-called “ham and balls” from Philly’s mean white working-class streets who becomes a heavyweight contender and eventual world champion.

But the new franchise also addressed issues related to the black experience and black masculinity.

“It’s refreshing to see this focus, not on our traditional way of thinking about black representation in relation to the past and historical struggles against discrimination and oppression,” said Brandy Monk-Payton, a professor at Fordham University, referring to specialized in the representation of black people in the media. “I think they’re embedded in the way [the film’s characters] move around the world … but at the same time it is not the heart of the story. The focus of the story is this everyman who ends up going through a struggle and triumph.”

Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors star in Warner Bros.’ “Creed III.”

Warner Bros.

That kind of story can only be told when black artists are part of the production process and take on leadership roles in studios, industry insiders and experts say.

Sheldon Epps, one of the preeminent black directors in television and theater, said it’s only in the last decade that he’s seen a change in Hollywood’s diversity.

“I’ve been around long enough that in certain situations I’ve been one of the few or one of the only black directors or black directors of an arts institution,” he said. “On certain years, the only one on some of the TV shows I’ve done, like ‘Friends’ and ‘Frasier.’ And unfortunately that was the case for many, many years.”

Epps said that slowly changed as more black directors were hired to direct hour-long dramatic television shows, including Paris Barclay (Cold Case, The West Wing) and Eric Laneuville (Lost). He also pointed to black authors like Ava DuVernay as people who rose to positions of power and used that position to uplift others. DuVernay’s series Queen Sugar had a policy that only female directors would be hired to work on the show.

“Having more color artists participate in the process of creating the stories, not just creating but writing, is critical because it expands the canvas,” Epps said. “Rather than a narrow view of Black, Latino, or Asian, we get a much, much broader view of all of our nation’s diverse communities because the stories are being written from within those worlds.”

Jonathan Majors and Michael B. Jordan star in Warner Bros. Creed III.

Warner Bros.

And stories about black protagonists sell tickets.

The Woman King grossed nearly $100 million worldwide during its theatrical run last year, and Coogler’s two Marvel-branded Black Panther films combined grossed more than $2 billion at the worldwide box office.

Both Creed and Creed II grossed more than $100 million at the domestic box office, according to Comscore. And the third film is expected to gross between $25 million and $35 million in its opening weekend.

“It expanded audiences,” said Rolando Rodriguez, chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners. “There is a specific additional energy that is emerging within the Hispanic and African American communities.”

Rodriguez estimates that while black people make up 13% of the population, black moviegoers will account for about 20% to 22% of total Creed III ticket sales. Similarly, the Hispanic community makes up about 19% of the population but represents 25% to 28% of movie ticket sales.

“That really helps the film as a whole because it doesn’t take away other viewers,” he said, noting that other demographics will still show up for the film, so it’s not a substitute for those viewers.

“I’m excited about that because it’s nice to see some of these diverse films that these young men and women can actually see themselves on screen as stars and actresses,” Rodriguez added. “That you can be someone who can hopefully become a CEO or a movie star or a producer or a director … I think that sends a very important social message.”

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