HONG KONG • A surprise hit animated film has become China's second-biggest movie ever, driving summer box-office sales towards a record in a season marred by increased censorship concerns.
Ne Zha, which tells the story of an underdog demon-child who chooses good over evil, grossed 4.72 billion yuan (S$915 million) as of Sunday, according to China Movie Data Information Network.
The blockbuster, produced by Beijing Enlight Media, is a bright spot in a gloomy summer for Chinese cinema when some major films were pulled for reasons unknown amid speculation the government was tightening control over content.
The success of Ne Zha also shows the dominance of local fare, even as Hollywood continues to rely on the market to make up for weakening American sales.
Ne Zha has given a boost to the country's film industry and to the market share of Chinese films, said Mr Rance Pow, chief executive officer of cinema industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway.
"Long-term, we remain bullish on the China market, " he said.
Within weeks after its July 26 release, Ne Zha blew past Avengers: Endgame (2019), the superhero franchise by Walt Disney's Marvel that raked in about US$614 million (S$854 million) in China and set records elsewhere this spring.
It has surpassed Chinese home-grown science-fiction blockbuster, The Wandering Earth (2019, 4.65 billion yuan), to be the second-highest grossing film in China and is behind only Chinese action film Wolf Warrior 2 (2017, 5.68 billion yuan) .
The 3D film is the first feature for 38-year-old director Yang Yu, also known as Jiaozi, a pharmacy college dropout. The movie is now China's biggest animation ever, surpassing 2015's Monkey King: Hero Is Back, which grossed US$153 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
While China's box-office sales are still down year-to-date, the response to Ne Zha suggests local films scheduled for the national holidays next month could do well enough to fuel an overall gain this year.
The Climbers, The Chinese Pilot and Me And My Country are set to screen over the seven-day break and have commercial themes that have appealed broadly to filmgoers, said Mr Liu Peng, head of Maoyan Movie's research institute.
In terms of blockbusters, this year already has at least one record in China. Ne Zha is the third movie this year that has pulled in more than US$550 million.
"This has never happened before," said Mr Liu. "It's a sign of an increasing box-office divide, with blockbusters getting a larger market share. It has increased the riskiness of the movie industry."