Even though he owns the largest cinema chain in China, Wanda Group’s chairman Wang Jianlin says he rarely goes to the movies. In fact, he hasn’t even seen The Great Wall, an action thriller that cost Legendary – a studio he also owns – $150 million to make. “I have not seen this movie so I really cannot give a detailed judgement of the movie,” he told the Financial Times in a recent interview. “But it did not reach our expectations in terms of content or the box office.”
A film that has been beating all expectations in China, however, is one Wang did not invest in. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth instalment in the Fast and Furious franchise that has broke several box office records in the country.
The action thriller, which stars Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson as street car racers and Charlize Theron as the hacker-villain, has so far raked in Rmb2.2 billion ($320 million) in ticket sales. That makes China the largest international market for the film, contributing over 35% of its global box office taking.
Unsurprisingly the blockbuster hit is also the biggest film of 2017 in China, having overtaken Kung Fu Yoga, which earned $255 million from its fortuitous Chinese New Year release. Industry insiders now believe that it is inevitable that the film will surpass Furious 7’s Rmb2.4 billion record as the highest grossing Hollywood film ever in China.
According to Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment industry blog, Furious 8 performed exceptionally well in second- and third-tier cities. In some instances, ticket sales in less developed cities even surpassed those in first-tier metropolises. Anticipating the huge demand, some IMAX cinema operators have raised the prices of tickets from Rmb70 to Rmb90.
“It feels like we just had another mini Chinese New Year holiday,” one cinema operator said, referencing the big annual boom period for the Chinese box office. “In the last few days, audiences around the country had to fight to get a ticket [to Furious 8].”
Meanwhile, ticket sales in China have surpassed those of the US, which has taken $164 million so far. While it is not the first time a Hollywood film has performed better in China than the US – previously World of Warcraft and Kong: Skull Island have both received a warmer reception in China – the runaway success of Furious 8 suggests that Chinese audiences are still very enthusiastic about big action blockbusters.
“The other new films that were released around the same period posed no threat to Furious 8. Moreover, China now dominates the world when it comes to the number of movie screens so the fact that its box office result in China is significantly higher than the US is hardly surprising,” industry expert Jiang Yong told the Beijing News.
Even though film critics have been harsh about the flick – the Wall Street Journal calls it “soulless, graceless, witless, incoherent, and, not incidentally, brain-numbingly long at 136 minutes” – Chinese audiences were decidedly more positive.
“The story is still a typical commercial film: you see the beginning you know the ending. But I’m still surprised that by the eighth instalment, the franchise still surprises me when it comes to innovation in cinematography and stunt choreography. The ‘zombie’ car chase scene in New York and the sequence in the glacier still suggest that the producers have a lot of ideas up their sleeves. For a commercial film, it shows a lot of creativity,” one netizen wrote on Douban, a film review site.
So what’s the reason for the enduring popularity of the Fast and Furious franchise in China? One reason is that it doesn’t have the same ‘fatigue factor’ as in the US, says Yiyu Guancha. The first Fast and Furious film got its American release back in 2001. But it wasn’t until 2009, or the fourth instalment, that the franchise made its way to the Chinese big screen.
“Chinese moviegoers are still at a stage where they mainly seek sensory stimulation when they go to the cinema. For American audiences, however, they have become desensitised to that action genre. So while the box office in their birthplace has suffered, the potential in China is enormous,” reckons People’s Daily.
Moreover, unlike other Hollywood franchises that are based on comics (like Marvel’s Avengers), the Furious series requires little cultural reference to understand. “For a culture that is very different from the US, it takes time for Chinese audiences to grow accustomed to the characters and storyline. On the other hand, the Furious franchise – with its focus on the action sequence, family and friendship – it is easy for domestic audiences to understand quickly,” one cinema operator told the Lanzhou Morning Post.
Meanwhile, in a sign that product placement has become increasingly sophisticated, this time round Tencent is employing augmented reality technology (used in the popular mobile game Pokemon Go) to promote its instant messaging application in Furious 8. How it works is that whenever an audience member spots Tencent’s corporate mascot (a penguin) in the film, they can capture it with the QQ mobile app, which will immediately direct the user to Tencent’s car racing game H5 on their smartphone. Similarly, catching the mascot whenever they see the movie poster can launch the game on their mobile phone and redeem other prizes.
“All the brands that are associated with Furious 8 are globally-renowned companies. So this time being able to place QQ in the film truly makes us a global name,” says a Tencent spokesperson. “Moreover, this time we get to flex our tech muscle, showcasing to the world our augmented reality technology. It also makes QQ seem more modern and innovative.”
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