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Chinese films have reaped record earnings at their country’s theatrical box office in 2021, but Hollywood ticket revenue in the Middle Kingdom remains mostly in the doldrums. Now, an outbreak of the Delta variant, rampant piracy and unpredictable political challenges are clouding the picture for the U.S. film industry’s hopes for an end-of-year comeback in China, which has emerged from the pandemic as the world’s largest theatrical marketplace by far.
Chinese-language films not only have recovered from the darkest days of the pandemic — when taken in aggregate, they are performing better than ever before. Local titles, led by huge hits like Beijing Culture’s Hi, Mom ($822.1 million) and Bona Film Group’s Chinese Doctors ($197 million), collectively earned $3.9 billion at China’s box office from Jan. 1-July 31, considerably better than the pre-pandemic benchmark years of 2018 and 2019, when sales for the same period totaled $3.8 billion and $2.9 billion, respectively, according to data collected by consultancy Artisan Gateway.
Hollywood imports have achieved little of the same recovery in China, however. In 2021, imported U.S. studio films had earned just $700 million as of July 31, down 66 percent compared to sales over the same stretch in 2019 ($2.1 billion), and falling 61 percent from 2018 ($1.8 billion).
Overall, China’s annual box office was down 15 percent during the first seven months of 2021, from $5.5 billion in 2019 to $4.7 billion this year, with a decline in total sales for Hollywood product comprising nearly all of the shortfall.
The biggest problem, analysts say, is simply a dearth of product. Release delays related to the pandemic resulted in a scant few U.S. movies hitting Chinese screens during the first half of the year. And Beijing film regulators’ usual blackout on foreign film releases during the peak summer moviegoing period has been stricter and longer than usual in deference to this year’s politically high-profile 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Altogether, only 13 revenue-sharing U.S. studio titles have been released in China so far in 2021, down from the 22 titles that were released by the end of July in 2019, and 26 in the same stretch of 2018.
The last U.S. movie to open in China was Sony’s Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway on June 11 (it earned $30.7 million), and the only Hollywood movie granted a release date since is Disney/Pixar’s Luca, scheduled for Aug. 20. The backlog of tentpoles awaiting release dates as China’s summer blackout on Hollywood winds down include: Disney’s Black Widow, Jungle Cruise and Free Guy; and Warner Bros’ Space Jam: A New Legacy and The Suicide Squad. Disney and Marvel’s rapidly approaching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, set to open in the U.S. and most major global markets on Sept. 3, also remains unscheduled in China.
The rare U.S. tentpoles that have opened in China this year have demonstrated that the Chinese audience, regardless of growing nationalist sentiment in the country, remains ready to embrace effects-heavy Hollywood spectacle. Warner Bros. and Legendary’s Godzilla vs. Kong earned a healthy $135.4 million in China in March, followed by Universal’s F9: The Fast Saga, which debuted on May 21 and pulled in $203.8 million.
But the recent spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in China has many in the local industry on edge. Beijing’s aggressive “zero COVID” policy means that the broad swaths of the country’s services sector, including cinemas, are at risk of total shutdown the moment a nearby local infection is discovered. Thus far, Chinese authorities’ drastic measures, including the testing of entire cities and shutdowns in inter-province travel, have failed to fully stamp out the Delta variant. As of Aug. 13, locally transmitted COVID-19 cases had been discovered in half of China’s 26 provinces and reached 878 total infections, more than double the 390 cases recorded for the entire month of July, data reported daily by China’s National Health Commission shows.
“The impact of the ongoing pandemic cannot be understated,” says Rance Pow, president of Artisan Gateway, who notes that nearly 3,500 cinemas have been recently closed in China as a precautionary measure related to Delta variant spread. “We’ll be closely watching local handling of the current outbreak, as well as the developing release calendar, for signs of a late year turnaround,” he adds.
But even assuming the emergence of a favorable release schedule and total local elimination of the Delta variant — both big ifs — all of the currently unreleased Hollywood product faces another obstacle that could prove just as pernicious: piracy.
Thanks to Disney and WarnerMedia’s controversial strategy of releasing recent tentpoles simultaneously in cinemas and over their in-house streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, high-definition copies of Black Widow, Space Jam, The Suicide Squad and Jungle Cruise have been available on easy-to-access Chinese piracy networks for weeks.
Further darkening the overall earnings outlook, Disney, consistently the most successful U.S. studio in China, must contend with murky political challenges surrounding its remaining two Marvel superhero tentpoles for 2021 — the franchise that has consistently been the company’s most bankable product in the China by far (Avengers: Endgame remains the highest grossing U.S. movie ever with $629 million).
Marvel’s Eternals, due to begin its worldwide release in October, is directed by China-born filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who came under attack from nationalistic social media accounts earlier this year after an old comment she made in an interview criticizing China as a “place where lies are everywhere” was resurfaced and went viral. The ensuing outrage resulted in the near total local censorship of Zhao’s historic best director Oscar win for Nomadland.
Shang-Chi, meanwhile, heralds the debut of Marvel’s first Asian superhero, played by China-born actor Simu Liu, with supporting performances from Chinese screen icons Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Michelle Yeoh. Much like Eternals, the local connections that might have seemed a boon instead have proved only a burden. Users of China’s social media services have lobbed criticism at the project for months because of the painful legacy surrounding the character of Fu Manchu, the villain who turns out to be Shang-Chi’s father in the original Marvel comics. Fu Manchu has been criticized for decades as a racist embodiment of the “yellow peril” stereotype. For the forthcoming film, Disney is known to have rewritten the character as Wenwu, aka “the Mandarin,” but some Chinese internet users have argued that the film should be boycotted on principle no matter how tenuous the historical connection.
“It’s become very easy to offend nationalist sentiments in China in general,” says Stan Rosen, a professor at USC who specializes in the Chinese film industry, “but whenever Hollywood makes a film involving Chinese culture, it really becomes a mine field.”
He adds: “Of course, no one has seen [Shang-Chi] yet, but the Chinese audience already feels that Hollywood is telling them, ‘We know how to make a superhero movie about Chinese culture better than you do’ — and so the knives are out.”
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