This summer, a high-octane action movie captivated audiences in one of the world’s largest film markets, grossing nearly $1 billion and changing the trajectory of its box office forecast. And while that seems like welcome news for the slumping U.S. box office, it wasn’t: the movie was China’s “Wolf Warrior 2.”
“Wolf Warrior 2,” directed by and starring Wu Jing, made more than $800 million in China at the same time U.S. box office was struggling through its worst summer slump in more than a decade. (New Line’s record-setting “It” helped the domestic box office bounce back in September, but it remains down nearly 5 percent year-to-date.)
At the Future of Asia Conference put on by the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in Santa Monica earlier this month, Leeding Media CEO David U. Lee said the Chinese box office could finish up as much as 20 percent this year, a welcome performance after the world’s fastest-growing movie market flatlined last year following years of double-digit growth. Jonathan Papish, a box office analyst at China Film Insider, said that growth rate is possible if including online ticketing fees, but even adjusting for those, it should still finish up by a healthy mid-teens percent.
With all the doom and gloom in Hollywood, here’s how China held strong:
Sometimes it only takes one movie
“The difference between this year and last can mainly be attributed to the success of ‘Wolf Warrior 2,'” Papish told TheWrap. “In fact, removing its current gross (5.28 billion yuan) would actually place this year’s box office behind last year’s, excluding ticketing fees.”
“Wolf Warrior 2” passed Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid,” which was released last February, to become China’s all-time highest-grossing movie. “The Mermaid” got 2016 off to a strong start, but a combination of reduced ticket subsidies and a weak local slate turned it into a major disappointment, as the Chinese box office grew just 4 percent last year, and actually declined in dollar terms, as the Chinese yuan weakened against the U.S. currency.
But “Wolf Warrior 2’s” record-setting performance, which came during the busier summer season, almost single-handedly gave 2017 a different ending.
China isn’t as reliant on one type of film as the U.S. has become
In 2015, it took “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to propel the domestic box office to a record high. Last year, five of the 10 highest-grossing films in North America were either “Star Wars” or superhero movies. And even this year, the industry is largely counting on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” along with comic-book adaptations “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Justice League” to rescue a brutal 2017.
But despite China being a much less mature movie market, its audiences seem to have a diversity of tastes that make it less reliant on droids and Avengers than the U.S. is.
Hollywood continues to count heavily on caped crusaders and their ilk, with Warner Bros. “Wonder Woman,” Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming” making up three of the top 5 domestic films thus far this year. But it’s a different story in China, where a mix of homegrown films and non-comic book based movies have been among its strongest performers.
“If ‘War for the Planet of the Apes’ eventually surpasses ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ a Hollywood superhero film will fail to rank in the top 10 highest-grossing imports of the year for the first time since 2003,” Papish wrote earlier this month.
Hollywood hits disappointed at home, but imports soared in China
“Wolf Warrior 2” was easily the major story behind China’s box office turnaround, but imports also did their duty.
Hollywood’s superhero hits didn’t do the numbers in the Middle Kingdom they did at home, but domestic disappointments like “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” soared in China. And Indian film “Dangal,” which made just $12.4 million domestically, hauled in a whopping $193 million in China.
“2017 has been a stronger year for imported films,” Papish said. “Can’t [just] say Hollywood because ‘Dangal’ is currently the 3rd highest-grossing import of the year.”
China still needs Hollywood films to fill its ever-expanding supply of theaters. But the good news for its filmmakers — potentially bad news for Hollywood — is that its box office no longer lives and dies with them.