Godzilla Vs. Kong, which will be released in Chinese theatres later this year, will see if China really cares for Hollywood tentpoles that aren’t Marvel or Fast & Furious films.
For those who are already following along, After 13 days in China, Hi, Mom has grossed $679 million and Detective Chinatown 3 has grossed $643 million. Hi, Mom has surpassed the unadjusted domestic cumes of Jurassic World ($652 million), Titanic ($659 million), and Avengers: Endgame ($679 million) in terms of single-territory grosses, with Black Panther ($700 million) and the Chinese cumes of The Wandering Earth ($699 million) and Ne Zha ($723 million) in its sights. Detective Chinatown 3, which smashed the single-territory opening weekend record of $398.5 million, is projected to gross $660-700 million worldwide, plus whatever it receives outside China. This weekend, there will be some new rivalry in the form of real Hollywood launches in 2021. The question is whether the Hollywood blockbuster still has a place in China.
Even in normal times, I don’t think Tim Story’s Tom & Jerry (which looks perfectly funny, natch) would be a huge Chinese tentpole. It’s arguably being used as a glorified loss leader to help theatres keep the lights on and (more importantly) give HBO Max a subscription/retention boost, just like the rest of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate. Raya and the Last Dragon (in theatres March 5 and on Disney+ for $30 where applicable) is also a coin flip. Though I don’t expect much of a boost due to its Southeast Asian setting and characters (Vietnam isn’t China), it appears to be more in the spirit of Ne Zha (high adventure, unapologetic fantasy, and self-deprecating humour) than Mulan and (to a lesser extent) The Great Wall.
The Chinese release of Godzilla Vs. Kong will be the main test, if everything goes according to plan. If the Adam Wingard film opens on May 21, as it was expected to in North America (and elsewhere) before being pushed back to the week of March 26 overseas and March 31 in North America, or if it is moved up in China as well, it will be a crucial test of Hollywood’s pull in China. Even if Black Widow opens on time in early May, it will almost certainly do well. F9, likewise, will be massive regardless of when it hits Chinese theatres. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Fast and Furious franchises are the two most popular Hollywood properties in China, particularly in recent years. However, giant monsters such as Jurassic Park, The Meg, and the MonsterVerse are on the way.
Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham in Universal’sFast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw
In contrast, rival Hollywood franchise titles underperformed for most of 2019 as the MCU grew in popularity in China, starting with Ant-Man and the Wasp ($125 million) in 2018 and Captain Marvel ($154 million) in 2019. Apart from Hobbs & Shaw, which grossed $200 million in China alone out of a total of $759 million, the only non-Marvel Hollywood blockbuster to gross even $135 million in 2019 was… Godzilla: King of Monsters. Though King of the Monsters was a huge flop worldwide ($385 million vs. $529 million for Godzilla in 2014), it did well in North America ($106 million vs. $200 million). Although it had a 71 percent rise (from $78 million for Godzilla to $135 million for King of the Monsters), its raw overseas decrease was just 15% ($274 million) less than Godzilla ($324 million).
One of the biggest unanswered questions after 2019 was whether China would continue to prioritize MCU and Fast & Furious films to the point that other Hollywood franchises would be unable to compete. Kong: Skull Island, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales all grossed $159-$172 million in China in 2017. That was more than the $105-$120 million superhero film ceiling (over/under). In 2018, films like Rampage ($155 million), The Meg ($155 million), Bumblebee ($171 million), Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($181 million), and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($227 million) demolished what was possible for a solo superhero film in China. However, by 2019, the majority of Hollywood films were underperforming.
In China, Captain Marvel made $154 million, while Alita: Battle Angel only made $133 million. Avengers: Endgame outperformed Avengers: Infinity War ($356 million) by a margin of 71 percent, leaving Detective Pikachu ($93 million) in the dust. Non-MCU/DC/Fast Saga tentpoles (Top Gun: Maverick, Mulan, No Time to Die, Space Jam: A New Legacy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) were expected to be put to the test alongside Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, and F9. The response is still pending. Given the underwhelming performances of Wonder Woman 1984 ($25 million) and Mulan ($41 million), as well as the $2.8 million-$19.5 million cumes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Bad Boys for Life, Little Women, 1917, and Dolittle, Tenet’s ($66 million), Soul’s ($58 million), and The Croods: A New Age’s ($53 million), the China cumes for Tenet ($66 million), Soul ($58 million), and The Croods:
Tom Holland in Spider-Man Far from Home
We don’t know if the lacklustre box office receipts of various long-awaited Hollywood films last year indicate anything other than the absence of such films alongside variables linked to the pandemic. Perhaps it was simply a case of them being overshadowed (by theatres and moviegoers) by the local Chinese blockbusters in the months following their release in North America (complete with piracy issues). The fear is that it was a continuation of a pattern that began in 2019 and saw Chinese viewers become less interested in stereotypical Hollywood blockbusters outside of a few select franchises.In 2017 and 2018, it was China’s strength that allowed modestly popular non-superhero franchises to compete with Marvel/DC films. Would you spend $125 million (or even more) in almost every other form of branded tentpole if that element wasn’t present?
Regardless of pandemic-related factors, there are two ways to measure Godzilla Vs. Kong’s box office capacity in China. The 71 percent leap between Godzilla installments (nearly equivalent to the jumps from Infinity War to Endgame and from Homecoming to Far from Home), combined with Skull Island’s $168 million box office, could indicate that the MonsterVerse is a big-deal franchise/IP for Chinese moviegoers. However, there has been a slew of major franchise films that have underperformed in China in recent years (think Transformers: The Last Knight). The era of Destruction, Terminator: Genisys, and X-Men: Apocalypse) only to be followed by the sequels (The Last Knight, Dark Destiny, and Dark Phoenix). Pacific Rim: Uprising, on the other hand, performed similarly to King of the Monsters in that it failed worldwide, with the exception of China, where it grossed $99 million compared to Pacific Rim’s $111 million.
We’ll see how the HBO Max/Disney+ availability of Tom & Jerry and Raya and the Last Dragon affects piracy issues in what is now the world’s largest theatrical industry. How will Chinese moviegoers respond to new Hollywood releases now that they’ve had a near-constant stream of massive blockbusters like The Eight Hundred, My People, My Homeland, Detective Chinatown 3, and Hi, Mom? Prior to 2020, China was a market of arguably exaggerated significance, saving underperforming companies more often than not. For a sexier global number, American biggies artificially goosing the global gross of already popular Hollywood tentpoles (Age of Extinction would have approached $800 million without a penny from China). China’s comparatively quick recovery, followed by six months of almost entirely Chinese blockbusters, suggests that the world’s largest overseas market will no longer need Hollywood.