”Full River Red“ and ”The Wandering Earth 2“ helped push China’s theatrical revenues near $1.5 billion in the first month of 2023
After a down year for the second-biggest moviegoing marketplace, China’s theatrical industry may be back with or without Hollywood’s help. “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” earned just $7.5 million after four days in China, but the Middle Kingdom’s two biggest Lunar New Year releases continued to soar. “The Wandering Earth 2,” a prequel to the early-2019 disaster epic, topped $518 million, while Zhang Yimou’s period-piece suspense comedy “Full River Red” sailed past $609 million.
“This is a great reminder of what the Chinese box office looks like when it’s firing on all cylinders — strong results driven by a broad, diverse offering of films across genres from local and Hollywood filmmakers alike,” IMAX China CEO Daniel Manwaring told TheWrap.
That “The Wandering Earth 2” is not the season’s top Chinese tentpole and probably won’t match its $699 million-grossing predecessor is a slight surprise. There is a recent pattern in China of the presumed New Year’s champion, usually a sequel to a recent smash hit like “Monster Hunt 2” in 2018 or “Detective Chinatown 3” in 2021, doing well even while getting surpassed by a new offering like “Operation Red Sea” in 2018 or “Hi, Mom” in 2021.
After all, many Hollywood sequels don’t make more than their predecessors. More importantly, “Wandering Earth 2” and “Full River Red” helped power a near-$1 billion box office take in the New Year frame.
China’s theatrical industry suffered a sharp decline in 2022
As previously reported in TheWrap, last year saw the Chinese box office total around $4.5 billion, dropping 39% below the $7.4 billion earned in 2021. It also included a pattern of big Hollywood movies like “The Batman,” “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Top Gun: Maverick” becoming global smash hits with little to no money from China. China’s year-to-date total for 2023 is already near $1.5 billion, with the late-December release “Avatar: The Way of Water” eventually sailing past $245 million after a soft $57 million launch.
“This may be a return to pre-COVID standards for homegrown Chinese films,” noted entertainment attorney Stephen Saltzman, who heads the entertainment practice at the law firm Fieldfisher. “I do not think it is necessarily a harbinger of the same for imported films. We are fortunately now seeing more release dates for studio films, so this is a sign that the government is taking measures to boost the overall box office.”
It can be perilous to use “Avatar 2” as an indicator for Hollywood films returning to pre-COVID strength in China since James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster is such an anomaly. As such, all Hollywood eyes are now on Disney’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” which opens concurrently worldwide the week of Feb. 17.
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” just opened in China this past Tuesday, months after its global debut and a week after its post-theatrical debut on Disney+. However, Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man” threequel will be the first new Marvel movie to get a release in China concurrent with the global launch since Sony’s “Spider-Man: Far from Home” earned $199 million out of $1.131 billion in the country in 2019.
Fenton, who was instrumental during his time at DMG Entertainment in turning “Iron Man 3” into a big-deal Chinese blockbuster, and who just joined the Third Way National Security team’s U.S.-China Digital World Order Advisory Board, further argued that “Hollywood pushed back last year on Beijing overreach, partially because China overplayed its hand in setting up the notion of a closed marketplace.”
He added: “Beijing lost Hollywood’s attention and loyalty and is now feigning a softening of stances to create the illusion of cooperation.”
It could be a two-pronged public signal that China wants to play nice and that nothing in a mass-market Hollywood blockbuster can do any soft-power damage to government-dictated cultural values.
The incident involving an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon shot down this month over the Carolina coast has offered clickbait visuals and, as Fenton put it, “a tangible reality to those otherwise uninterested in U.S.-China conflicts.” The U.S. military’s targeting of more high-altitude objects of unknown origin over the weekend did nothing to ease tensions.
Fenton believes pro-Beijing moves by any company or industry will be more heavily scrutinized. For those in the entertainment industry, it’s a “no-win dilemma,” as “any efforts to appease Beijing or gain access to China will be a PR issue.”
Chinese movies are back in China, but will Hollywood follow?
With 57% of Shanghai Disneyland owned by the government-run Shanghai Shendi Group and 70% of Universal Studios Beijing owned by the state-owned Beijing Shouhuan Cultural Tourism Investment Co., neither Disney nor Comcast can afford to totally walk away. Those multibillion-dollar investments far outshadow any theatrical revenue that Marvel’s “Ant-Man” threequel or Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” might make. Put another way, Hollywood’s need for Chinese theatrical revenue is pretty small potatoes in the larger picture.
A new status quo could be shaping up for the world’s two biggest moviegoing markets, whereby neither one depends on the other. “Avatar 2,” with $2.175 billion globally thus far, did not need China any more than “Full Red River” will need North America. If these past few weeks are any indication, both territories may be able to mark 2023 as a true return to normalcy regardless of how each country’s films play outside their home turf.
As Manwaring, who is married to Yimou’s daughter Zhang Mo, a filmmaker in her own right, noted, “Anyone with a stake in this market has to be thrilled with how the year has kicked off.”
Before joining The Wrap, Scott Mendelson got his industry start in 2008 with a self-piloted film blog titled "Mendelson's Memos." In 2013, he was recruited to write for Forbes.com where he wrote almost exclusively for nearly a decade. In that time he published copious in-depth analytical and editorialized entertainment industry articles specializing in (but not exclusively focused upon) theatrical box office. A well-known industry pundit, Mendelson has appeared on numerous podcasts and been featured as a talking head on NPR, CNN, Fox and BBC.