Summer drought

Why Hollywood’s blockbusters won’t benefit from China’s box office in July


Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow still awaits screen time in China

Marvel’s highly-anticipated Black Widow has prospered at the box office in the United States, where it has become the highest grossing domestic debut of the post-pandemic era.

But the superhero film – which stars Scarlett Johansson in the lead role – has been noticeably absent in China. The country’s censors approved Black Widow’s release back in March yet there is no news on when it will be shown on Chinese cinema screens.

Industry insiders suspect that is because the government hasn’t wanted to distract audiences from the flurry of more politically-inspired material that has been released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party (see WiC548).

“Beijing considers it politically paramount for the Party’s propaganda tribute films to reign supreme over their competitors this month,” explained Variety, the American film and entertainment specialist.

Two highly-anticipated local blockbuster releases – Zhang Yimou’s Sniper and Donnie Yen’s action flick Raging Fire – also saw their launch dates pushed back. As a result the only major alternative at cinemas is Chinese Doctors, another film with propaganda overtones that celebrates the efforts of a group of frontline medical workers during the darkest months of the Covid-19 outbreak last year (the studio that made it chose to premiere the film in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak).

Yet judging from the results of its opening weekend, audiences are growing fatigued with a number of the current films on offer. Despite a strong cast that includes pop icon Yi Yangqianxi and Zhou Ye, Chinese Doctors made a relatively modest Rmb350 million ($53.5 million) at the box office in its opening weekend, according to popular ticketing platform Maoyan.

One of the responses to the movie is that it’s soon to revisit the troubled times of the Covid crisis. “For a lot of people who experienced the 2020 pandemic, Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital [which was designated to treat Covid-19 patients] is a name that cannot be erased from the memory. So from this angle, the film will tug at audiences’ heartstrings,” commented 36Kr. “But that is also a double-edged sword. A lot of families that were affected by the pandemic won’t want to pay for tickets to watch their experiences on the big screen and relive the pain again.”

Cinema operators are already bracing for a slower summer holiday at their multiplexes. “It is too difficult for this summer’s box office to exceed Rmb17 billion, like in 2018 or 2019. Although this year’s Spring Festival and other big holidays have set new records, that was related to the ever-increasing movie ticket prices. Without compelling blockbusters moviegoing this summer is no longer an absolute necessity,” was 36Kr’s verdict.

It also doesn’t help that parts of the Pearl River Delta, traditionally a major cinema market for the film industry, have been in periodic lockdowns recently in a bid to contain a rise in new Covid cases. In 2019 Guangdong province contributed Rmb2.6 billion to the box office, the most in the country.

Some of the studios are now pinning their hopes on animated films. In 2019, Nezha was the biggest breakout film of the summer, collecting almost Rmb5 billion in ticket sales (see WiC462). It also set the record for the highest grossing animated film in China. Studios are hoping for a repeat success. With an eye to families and younger audiences, no fewer than 15 domestic animated films will hit the big screen this summer.

“Although there are a lot of them, most of the animated films are low-budget productions targeted at audiences in younger age groups. But only four have the potential to be a big box office hit: namely, Realm of Terracotta, Master Ji Gong, Out of the Earth and White Snake 2,” surmised Entertainment Capital.

Feedback from the early audiences for Realm of Terracotta, which was released in theatres last week, is that a repeat of the Nezha phenomenon looks unlikely. The fantasy film, which features a young terracotta warrior (think the famed imperial statues in Xi’an) collected just Rmb10 million during its opening weekend. Many derided the plot as “predictable” and “unoriginal”.

This summer studios will also have to compete against streaming platforms, which have increased their own cartoon content to attract younger audiences. The pipelines of streaming giants such as Youku, iQiyi and Bilibili collectively have more than 60 animated series scheduled for the second half of the year, reports the Global Times.

Animated content hasn’t been a particularly lucrative genre for China’s film sector in the past and before Nezha very few animations had brought large crowds to cinemas. Yet judging from previous years, there’s no specific genre that has guaranteed success during the traditionally peak period over the summer.

For instance, the main hit of 2017 was a Chuck Norris-like military action flick that broke local box office records, namely Wolf Warrior 2 (see WiC376). In 2018 the comedy-drama Dying to Survive dominated (see WiC417), before Nezha became the star performer the following year.

And as China’s cinema’s reopened last summer – after 178 days of Covid-related closures – the big draw was the The Eight Hundred (see WiC507), a movie based on the true story of a key battle between Chinese and Japanese troops in Shanghai in 1937.

“Audiences do not have a clear genre preference. As long as the quality is good and the word-of-mouth is strong, different types of films have the opportunity to become dark horses in the summer period” was 36Kr’s assessment.

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