China's blockbuster line-up signals tough year for Hollywood

Wang Baoqiang (in green) in Detective Chinatown 3. In a poll by online ticketing platform Maoyan, moviegoers in China ranked the film as their most anticipated Chinese New Year release.
Wang Baoqiang (in green) in Detective Chinatown 3. In a poll by online ticketing platform Maoyan, moviegoers in China ranked the film as their most anticipated Chinese New Year release. PHOTO: DETECTIVE CHINATOWN/WEIBO

HONG KONG • China's biggest week of the year for moviegoers is packed with at least 12 new releases in the local language - a sign that Hollywood studios are headed for another challenging year in their No. 1 overseas market.

The line-up of potential Chinese New Year blockbusters from Jan 24 to 30 is drawing even more attention than usual, as China is set to overtake the United States as the world's largest movie market this year.

The milestone is also important for US film-makers that have come to rely on revenue from China to backstop their big-budget tent-polefilms, which are often made to be big earners in order to offset the financial risks of a studio's other titles.

"Chinese and American audiences are tired of these tent-pole movies," said Beijing-born Jean Su, a producer and co-founder of Broadvision Pictures. The Los Angeles-based independent film and television studio focuses on movies for global audiences, including North America and China.

Ms Su said some recent tent-pole films have not done well in the US and may not get the box-office returns they expected in China.

The rising dominance of Chinese blockbusters is in line with a broader shift towards local goods as a trade war with the US stokes nationalism.

Older American franchise films such as Fast & Furious and Transformers, which used to offset mediocre US box-office sales with big China receipts, have seen their share of China's estimated US$29 billion (S$39 billion) movie market dwindle.

At the same time, some of China's franchises are on the rise. Detective Chinatown 3 and Lost In Russia - instalments of two of China's most commercially successful comedies - are among the films forecast to do well over the holiday.

Leap, based on the true story of the Chinese women's volleyball team, is another potential blockbuster amid rising interest in nationalistic themes.

While China's moviegoers are becoming choosier, especially when it comes to Hollywood movies, there is still a big Chinese audience for great work from the US, said Mr Gary Walters, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Bold Films, which has produced films such as Whiplash (2014) and Nightcrawler (2014).

Overall box-office sales increased by 4.1 per cent in China last year, while the slice accounted for by Hollywood titles fell to about 36 per cent, the lowest since at least 2011, according to data from Maoyan Entertainment, China's largest online ticketing platform.

 
 
 
 

Even if Hollywood's market share in China drops for another year, US films will probably show a net gain in revenue from the country, given broader growth in the market, predicted Mr Walters.

There were still some successes last year among US-made films in China. Disney's Marvel franchise film Avengers: Endgame made US$614 million in gross box-office receipts last year in China - enough to make it the year's third-biggest film there, according to movie database IMDB.com.

Any gains this year in China will have to come without the likes of Avengers: Endgame, which did especially well as a popular franchise that tied up themes built up over years.

Hollywood's first hit in China this year may be Mulan. Disney's US$150 million live-action feature starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen and Jet Li is scheduled for a March 27 China release, according to IMDB.com.

On the schedule this Chinese New Year: The Rescue, a maritime disaster thriller directed by one of Hong Kong's most successful action movie directors, Dante Lam, and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau.

Such action themes have been popular in China. The Lam-directed Operation Red Sea was the top-grossing film of 2018 and Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) reached the all-time No. 1 box-office ranking in the country.

Jiang Ziya: Legend Of Deification, an animation based on an ancient Chinese legend, was ranked as the second-most anticipated film of the holiday release schedule in a poll conducted by Maoyan - trailing only Detective Chinatown 3.

"In the past, people wondered what would be the all-time highest sales if all of the top grossers were released during the same season," said Mr Liu Zhenfei, data analyst at Maoyan.

"This year, the Chinese New Year season is that kind of match-up, with what will probably be the best-of-the-best-selling films in one week."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2020, with the headline 'China's blockbuster line-up signals tough year for Hollywood'. Print Edition | Subscribe