How China ‘let it go’ (again)

Disney caps stellar year at Chinese box office with Frozen sequel


Idina Menzel, the actress who provides the voice for Elsa in Frozen 2

To drum up interest for Disney’s latest animated movie Frozen 2, the studio teamed up with beautification app Meitu to release a themed augmented reality filter. After the filter is turned on in Meitu’s mobile app, users need only make a few hand gestures to trigger animation features. Wands and crowns magically appear, and snowflakes fall across the screen. The filter has proven so popular that it has been downloaded almost two million times in the past week.

In fact, Elsa, the princess in the Frozen franchise, has become something of a beauty icon in China. Two of last Monday’s top trending hashtags on Sina Weibo were related to the Disney offering, and one was dedicated to marvelling at Elsa’s make-up. “Elsa is too stunning. She’s definitely my queen,” one netizen cooed in response.

The first of the Frozen movies took just $48.2 million in China in 2014, although the sequel has performed decidedly better, debuting at $53 million in its first weekend. That was Disney’s best China opening for an animated film. Industry insiders are predicting that it could rake in Rmb950 million (around $130 million) by the end of its run.

If so, it would be something of a surprise as musical animations often struggle with Chinese moviegoers, who perceive the genre as being only for kids.

Part of the reason for its success this time is the lack of competition. The only other Hollywood film in circulation is Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, while the main domestic contender is Two Tigers, which stars veteran actor Ge You.

Still, Frozen 2’s haul again cements Disney’s position as easily the top foreign studio in Chinese box office terms. As of November 14, the “Big Five’ Hollywood studios – also including Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures (Sony) and Paramount Pictures – have earned Rmb14.9 billion in China, with Disney taking the bulk of the proceeds – Rmb8.7 billion from 10 features. That far exceeds its takings of Rmb5.8 billion last year, and doesn’t even include the Marvel franchise, noted the Global Times.

Not every Disney production is a hit. Solo: A Star Wars Story, took just Rmb106 million last year. But other major successes this year have included the reboot of the Lion King, which made Rmb829 million.

With the rise of China’s domestic animation sector and the ongoing collaboration between Japanese and Chinese studios, Disney’s dominance in animated films is far from guaranteed too. “Understanding Chinese audiences’ preferences has become a big challenge for Disney,” Professor Suo Yabin from Communication University told the Global Times. “The studio needs to continue to innovate with content and work to combat aesthetic fatigue from the audience.”

Frozen 2 doesn’t look like surpassing the best box office figures for an animated film in China – that record is retained by Nezha, a locally-made animation which took Rmb2 billion in August (see WiC462). However, Disney does lead the pack in its merchandising know-how and Frozen-themed goods have continued to sell out online. Elsa dresses, handbags and dolls are abundant on Taobao, for instance. Despite its box office success, Nezha, by comparison, never managed to translate its box office success into merchandise sales.

“After six years, Frozen’s IP is hotter than ever, triggering new customer behaviour and deep emotional connections. In a sense, Frozen is no longer just an intellectual property but a commercial symbol. Just based on this point, domestic animation still has a long way to go,” wrote Lanjing Caijing.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.