No Marvel, Big Problem: Chinese Box Office Down 27% From 2019

The Chinese box office is looking to films like ”No Time to Die“ and ”The Battle of Lake Changjin“ to end a four-month slump

With plenty of blockbusters and specialty contenders, October is expected to be a busy and fruitful month for the box office. That’s not just in the United States but also in China, where theaters hope that a mix of local and Hollywood blockbusters (though no Marvel movies) will break a months-long slump in moviegoing.

Just seven months ago, China was the envy of the global theatrical marketplace, reporting a record $1.2 billion grossed in the Lunar New Year period of Feb. 11-17. By the end of February, China reported box office of $2.3 billion for the first two months of the year, nearly 5% ahead of the pace set in pre-pandemic 2019. At a time when much of the rest of the world’s movie theaters had scarcely begun to reopen, China was looking like it was all the way back to normal.

But since then, the Chinese box office has slowed down significantly. Currently, the year-to-date box office stands at $5.3 billion, about 27% behind 2019 levels, according to Artisan Gateway. The last time overall weekend grosses in China rose above $100 million was the opening weekend of Universal’s “Fast & Furious” film “F9” back on May 21. (The film finished at $203.8 million in China.) Since May, though, grosses in the U.S. and Canada — approximately $1.9 billion — have exceeded the $1.6 billion grossed by China in the same time frame.

There are several factors in this reversal of fortune, the first being one that has affected theaters around the world: the Delta variant. China has seen a surge in COVID-19 infections, leading the government to enact some of the strictest containment measures of any country in the world. This includes tightening of capacity restrictions that has reduced the maximum number of tickets sold on any given day.

But another, possibly bigger factor is a lack of popular titles. In July, several major local blockbusters were set for release timed to the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. But after Delta hit, the most anticipated titles were pushed to National Day on October 1. Foremost among these is “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” a nearly three-hour war epic about a key battle between China’s People’s Volunteer Army and the United States during the Korean War. The film is expected to have a theatrical run in China to rival the massive $460 million total that “The Eight Hundred” earned during the heights of the pandemic last year.

Without films like “Lake Changjin,” only two films released since May have grossed close to $200 million in China: “Chinese Doctors,” a dramatic retelling of how frontline medical workers in Wuhan took on COVID-19 that grossed $197.1 million, and “Raging Fire,” a cop action film starring Donnie Yen that has grossed $194 million since its July 30 release.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • • Twitter: @jeremyfuster