China’s box office revenues fell in October, sliding 19% on last year, according to data from Ent Group. It was the fifth month this year that sales have come in lower than 2015. Industry bosses have been looking for a saviour – and they may have found one in Doctor Strange, the hero of the movie of the same name by Marvel Studios.
The film stars British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. The story of a neurosurgeon bestowed with dimension-altering superpowers may not be as familiar to local audiences as Iron Man or Captain America, but that hasn’t stopped the film from earning over Rmb300 million ($48 million) since its debut last Friday, the best opening in China all season.
Cumberbatch enjoys enduring popularity in China thanks to the BBC series Sherlock. In fact, he’s so famous that when former Prime Minister David Cameron visited China in 2013, one of the most frequent questions was when the third season of the British series would air.
The star’s latest appearance certainly hasn’t disappointed his legions of female fans in China – nicknamed ‘Cumberbitches’ elsewhere in the world. Some have even forked out for a higher ticket price to watch the film in the IMAX format because the large screen “best displays Cumberbatch’s handsome features,” one netizen proclaimed.
“Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is so cool and sexy. In the beginning he comes across as very arrogant, but he soon wins all the audiences over with his intelligence and wit. His portrayal of the superhero is so much better than all the big-muscle men in other franchises, coming across as much more real and human,” gushed the film critic in Guangzhou Daily.
Hong Kong Economic Times agreed, saying that the film is drawing female moviegoers to cinemas. “Marvel is smart to tap Benedict Cumberbatch for the lead role because unlike other Marvel superheroes, Doctor Strange’s superpower means he can kill without actually having to be in physical combat, so that makes his character even more appealing to women – his core demographic – who are less interested in violent scenes.”
To avoid offending the regulators, Marvel, which is owned by Disney, scrubbed the Tibetan origins of another of its main characters, Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. It also moved the story from Tibet to Nepal to reduce any political sensitivity.
In an interview with pop culture show Double Toasted, Robert Cargill, one of the screenwriters of the film, admits the move was to avoid “alienating one billion people”. As he put it: “[There is the risk of] the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know we’re one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”
Chinese audiences will also notice that a domestic brand features. In an important scene, when Strange drives his $237,000 Lamborghini, he looks down and checks a message on a Huawei ‘Honor’ smartphone. The moment leads to the car crash that turns him into a superhero (ironically the text message on the phone is a reminder not to SMS and drive at the same time).
Capitalising on the popularity of the film, the Shenzhen-based telecoms giant has been aggressively promoting its latest smartphone. One Huawei commercial compares the Honor 8 to the title character, claiming that both he and the phone “possess incredible superpowers.”
In an apparent nod to slowing sales at cinemas, Beijing appears too to have relaxed its rules limiting the number of Hollywood films that can be shown each year, says China Film Insider, an industry blog.
The number of Hollywood movies that have been screened – or have secured release dates – has already reached 38, compared to the usual annual cap of 34. But officials shot down claims that they were easing off on foreign quotas, saying that some of the films that have been approved for showing did not count towards the number because they were considered “cultural exchange projects”.
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