The financial fate of the James Cameron-produced Alita: Battle Angel faces a crucial test this weekend when it opens in China.
There are several reasons to be at least cautiously optimistic for a sizable showing for the 20th Century Fox pic in the Middle Kingdom. But as ever in this most unpredictable of territories, just how big remains to be seen.
One of the strongest points in Alita's favor in China is the involvement of Cameron, who is arguably the country's most revered filmmaker, thanks to the historic performances of Avatar ($204 million back in 2009, when China's box office was a third of its current size) and the 3D rerelease of Titanic ($145 million in 2012).
Indeed, Fox is aggressively marketing Alita as a "James Cameron production" in China. On Monday, Cameron hosted the Chinese premiere of Alita at a Wanda cinemaplex in central Beijing, with stars Rosa Salazar and Christoph Waltz also in attendance, along with producer Jon Landau.
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and co-written by Cameron, Alita: Battle Angel already cleared one hurdle when posting a six-day debut of $42.3 million in North America — $15 million to $20 million ahead of forecasts. Internationally, Alita, starring Salazar as a kick-ass cyborg, finished the Feb. 15-Feb. 17 weekend with an early foreign total of $94 million from 86 markets.
But the pic is hardly out of danger, considering its $170 million net budget and another $100 million-plus in worldwide marketing costs. Fox insiders say the film needs to do $350 million at the global box office to break even, but financial sources put that figure at $450 million to $500 million.
So far overseas, Alita is pacing roughly 5 percent ahead of Steven Spielberg’s 2018 sci-fi fantasy Ready Player One, which earned $455.2 million internationally, including more than $218 million in China. A similarly hefty return from the Middle Kingdom will be essential to Alita's overseas recovery effort.
Cameron's reputation in the market was evident in the starry audience the China premiere managed to pull in, which included many of the Beijing film industry's biggest names, such as Zhang Yimou, Li Bingbing, Wuershan (director of Mojin: The Lost Legend), actress Tan Zhou (star of last summer's blockbuster Dying to Survive) and Wang Sicong, the billionaire scion of Wanda boss Wang Jianlin. For at least a day, photos and discussion of the premiere — including the Chinese stars asking Cameron questions from the crowd — blanketed local social media.
"Overall market heat of Alita: Battle Angel has noticeably grown over the past week," says James Li, co-founder of Beijing-based film industry market research firm Fanink. "As of now, the movie's First Choice surpassed the norm for Hollywood releases, possibly owing to the recent marketing campaign with James Cameron's presence."
Alita will be the first Hollywood film to open in China since the blackout on foreign film imports during the nation's Lunar New Year holiday, a peak moviegoing period that Beijing reserves for the domestic industry's gain. In years past, Hollywood titles that immediately follow the holiday have been known to benefit from some pent-up demand for Hollywood's visual effects firepower (last year, Black Panther opened to a strong $67 million as the first post-Chinese New Year release from the U.S.; the year prior, Vin Diesel's xXx: The Return of Xander Cage debuted to $61.9 million in the same frame).
This year, the dynamics could be slightly different. The local champion of Chinese New Year 2019 was Beijing Culture's much-ballyhooed The Wandering Earth, "China's first big-budget sci-fi spectacle." With $610 million earned and counting, the film has been seen and discussed by the bulk of the country's moviegoing youth by now, and there has been considerable discussion on Chinese social media about excitement over the prospect of comparing Alita's sci-fi wizardry with the visual effects of the much-hyped domestic champion.
"It appears that sci-fi fans — those who claim they 'like sci-fi very much' — have increased in the Chinese market compared to last year," notes Li, citing Fanink's surveys.
Heading into the long Presidents Day holiday in the U.S., most box office analysts were expecting the year’s first big-budget miss and another sci-fi disaster in the wake of such bombs as Mortal Engines and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There was also the matter of less-than-stellar reviews (Alita’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 59 percent). But as the weekend unfolded, strong word of mouth kicked in after audiences showered Alita with an A- CinemaScore. Revenue was up more than 55 percent from Friday to Saturday, for example.
Even if it holds well in the U.S. — where it faces little competition until Captain Marvel on March 8 — and it zooms past $100 million, China and Japan will be key, as well as continued strength in other foreign markets. (China usually requires a huge tally to have a definitive impact on a tentpole's bottom line, given that Hollywood studios only get back approximately 25 percent of box office revenue, far less than anywhere else.)
The early buzz to emerge from Alita's China premiere on Monday also has been positive. The film currently has a score of 7.5/10 on leading film reviews site Douban, slightly behind The Wandering Earth's score of 7.9/10, but higher than any other Chinese release this year. Alita also has a uncommonly strong "want to see" ranking on Alibaba's powerhouse movie ticketing app Tao Piao Piao.
Maoyan, China's market-leading ticketing app, currently predicts that Alita will open to approximately 90.9 million RMB ($13.5 million) on Friday. Fanink's tracking suggests a full opening-weekend total of over $45 million, says Li.
"Early on, Alita seemed like it was lacking enough promotion," says Jimmy Wu, chairman of nationwide Chinese cinema chain Lumiere Pavilions. "But people are getting more and more interested in it."
Having attended the premiere hosted by Cameron, Wu says he's bullish on the film's China prospects. "We're anticipating a lifetime gross of 1.2 billion RMB ($174 million) for China," he says. "I have big hopes for it."