Universal’s “Furious 7” remains the all-time highest-grossing Hollywood movie ever to play in China, zooming its way to $391 million when it was released in April 2015 — a number no subsequent import has even come close to matching. But despite China’s box office no longer growing at the double-digit rates it was then, the next film in the franchise, “The Fate of the Furious,” might actually top its predecessor when it hits theaters this weekend.
Jonathan Papish, an industry and box office analyst at China Film Insider, told TheWrap he was initially skeptical that “Furious 8” could best its predecessor’s record run, especially without the “farewell Paul Walker factor,” as he put it. (Walker, one of the franchise’s main stars, died in a 2013 car accident.) “Furious 7” also had a long run with slim competition before Disney/Marvel’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” opened, while “Furious 8” has to contend with another Disney/Marvel blockbuster, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” in three weeks.
But based on a flurry of pre-sales and a surge in movie theater construction, Papish now thinks “Furious 8” could end up taking the crown.
“The pre-sales on this one are crazy, outpacing blockbusters like ‘Warcraft,’ ‘The Mermaid,’ and ‘Journey to the West 2,'” he said. “Pre-sales for opening day are currently over 100 million yuan ($15 million) and climbing every hour.”
“Warcraft” grossed $220 million in China, while “Journey to the West 2” reeled in $240 million and “The Mermaid,” the country’s highest-grossing film ever, brought in $527 million. And while pre-sales are not a perfect proxy, “Furious 8’s” early pace should put it in position to challenge its predecessor. Papish is predicting a gross around the $400 million range.
Furthermore, China’s surge in cinema building — the country now has more movie theaters than the U.S. — could give “Furious 8” plenty of runway to truly take off.
“China has added nearly 20,000 screens, almost doubling its capacity, since the end of 2014, and while the slowdown in box office revenue suggests the market may be reaching saturation, this is the ideal movie to take advantage of all those extra screens,” he said.
The “Furious 7” phenomenon strained China’s cinema supply at the time, with theaters at a robust 64 percent capacity during its opening weekend. Papish said the country’s building spree should help it better capitalize on a surge in demand.
“In many of the lower-tiered Chinese cities where the franchise is most popular, opening weekend sell-outs likely shut out some fans,” Papish said. “The majority of those 20,000 additional screens have been built in lower-tiered cities, so we are likely going to see admissions explode there, helping to push ‘Furious 8’s’ total gross past ‘Furious 7’s’ in local currency.”
Papish emphasized local currency because the yuan has fallen in relation to the dollar recently, which was a major factor in China implementing strict capital controls designed to prevent money from flowing out of the country — and as a consequence, making it harder for major cross-border deals like Dalian Wanda Group’s would-be $1 billion purchase of Dick Clark Productions to get across the finish line. China’s box office increased just 3.7 percent in yuan terms last year compared with 2015, but actually declined slightly when converted to dollars.
However, one factor that could work in “Furious 8’s” favor is a decision by the country’s regulators to include online ticketing surcharges in grosses as of Jan. 1, which Papish said will add about 5 to 6 percent to the total.
“Taking all of this into account, ‘Furious 8’ has the potential to make around 2.7 billion yuan (compared to ‘Furious 7’s’ 2.4 billion) thanks to huge opening weekend business, but its dollar total will fall right around $400 million,” he said. “I think it will be a tossup between ‘Furious 8’ and ‘Transformers 5’ for not just highest-grossing imported film of the year, but the highest-grossing film of 2017 — period.”