Entertainment, Society

Shooting for the moon

A China-backed Hollywood blockbuster breaks a box office record

Cast member Megan Fox poses on a roof garden for a photo call for the movie "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" in Berlin

Fox: stars in the China co-invested Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel

Too much time playing the computer game World of Warcraft (WoW) poses health risks. At least that seemed to be the story last year, when a 24 year-old man in Shanghai died after playing the game non-stop for 19 hours. The gamer wasn’t feeling too good so he called for an ambulance. But he carried on until it arrived and he dropped dead in the internet cafe in which he was playing. Lack of food, stress and sleep deprivation were blamed.

Regular readers of WiC will remember that WoW boasts a strong following in the country. In issue 270 we even reported that a prison in Heilongjiang was forcing its inmates to play the game so that prison guards could trade the virtual credits earned online for real money. And despite waning a little in worldwide popularity over the years, the game has maintained legions of loyal fans in China. Activision Blizzard, the company behind the game, reported that as of November last year, the number of Warcraft subscribers stood at 5.5 million and about a third of them were from China.

Given the number of devotees, the release of Warcraft: The Beginning, a film based (very loosely) on the video game, was always expected to be a moneyspinner.

Midnight screenings on Tuesday saw Warcraft, produced by Universal and Legendary Pictures, take about Rmb50 million ($7.5 million) – and over the course of Wednesday that rose to Rmb300 million. That made it the biggest non-weekend opening day in Chinese cinema history. Industry observers are speculating that the fantasy epic could eventually outpace Furious 7’s $391 million as the highest grossing foreign film in the country, says Sohu Entertainment, a portal.

The timing of the release couldn’t have been better: June 8 marks the end of college entrance exams for high school students and the Dragon Boat Festival holiday is on Thursday. As Deadline, an industry portal, remarks, “that’s like having five Saturdays in a row”.

Warcraft has a powerful support team. China Film Group, the state-owned film behemoth that sets the debut dates for imported films, is a backer of the Hollywood production. So is Wanda Group, China’s largest cinema operator. Even before Wanda spent $3.5 billion for a majority stake in Legendary – which bought the Warcraft adaptation rights 10 years ago – it was already a minority investor in the big screen adaptation of the video game.

The film has also been generating buzz online thanks to internet giant Tencent, which also invested in an equity stake. The Tencent Pictures deal on Warcraft is similar to Alibaba Pictures recent investment in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation in that it is a combination of equity and marketing and promotional support.

Huayi Brothers and Taihe Media are two other equity investors in the Hollywood production.

As a result Warcraft may have got one of the biggest promotional pushes a ‘foreign’ film has ever received in China. “There’s several hundred million renminbi worth of marketing behind this movie. Previous movies wouldn’t have got even a quarter of that,” says Peter Loehr, chief executive of the China arm of Legendary Pictures.

Nor is it only Warcraft that is funded with Chinese money. Many of the Hollywood movies released in June have received capital from China. Now You See Me 2 – a heist-thriller produced by Lionsgate ­– has Hunan TV’s film subsidiary as an investor. (Some of the scenes were filmed in Macau and the film boasts a cameo by Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou.) And Paramount studio’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows, starring actress Megan Fox, is co-financed by Movie Media Group – another Dalian Wanda subsidiary – as well as Alibaba Pictures, which will serve as the local marketing, promotional and merchandising partner.

Foreign studios are chasing Chinese partners for more than investment. Cross-border alliances are viewed as increasingly crucial in swaying regulators on coveted release dates. Internet giants like Tencent and Alibaba also bring their huge social media presence, which can be important in whipping up enthusiasm for the film online.

“Hollywood studios now need even more help on the marketing side. In the US, a promotional strategy is put in place almost as early as filming commences. However, this approach does not apply to the Chinese market… Sometimes, the studios find out about their opening dates only a few weeks before the release date. So they need local companies that have the resources to put together a campaign quickly,” an insider told QDaily.

Despite negative reviews for Warcraft in the Western media – the Guardian calls it a “dull-witted computer game spin-off” and Variety classes it as an “epic fail” – the feedback on Douban – one of China’s more influential review platforms – has been much more positive. As of Wednesday, moviegoers had rated the film 8.8 out of 10. And while there were some more critical voices, a lot of diehard fans say the film was worth waiting for. “No matter how many flaws there are in Warcraft, or how negative the reviews are, gamers like me will keep watching the franchise one instalment after the other. After all, World of Warcraft is a game we grew up with and loved,” a contributor to Phoenix Entertainment gushed.

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