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The well-regarded Belarusian-Russian film will pose a test of China’s market for emotionally potent foreign indie filmmaking, which had been growing steadily before the disastrous onset of the pandemic.
Persian Lessons premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020, where it was greeted warmly by critics and audiences. The film tells the story of a Jewish prisoner who pretends to be Iranian to escape being shot and is then forced to teach Farsi — a language he doesn’t actually speak — to a Nazi officer. Featuring moments of both black comedy and wrenching tragedy, the film was acquired for China by Beijing-based indie distributor Infotainment Media, which hoped to make it the next Capernaum — Nadine Labaki’s Lebanese festival favorite, which earned $54.3 million in China in 2019.
Persian Lessons received its release approval on Tuesday, leaving distributors just 10 days to mount a marketing campaign. In the past, foreign films were generally approved four to eight weeks in advance of their release dates, but March 2021 has been characterized by a bizarre rush. Moments after the Infotainment China team learned that their film had landed a release date in under two weeks, word spread that James Cameron’s Avatar also had been approved for a re-release — just three days later on Friday, March 12.
China’s cinemas set a new record during the recent weeklong Lunar New Year holiday, generating $1.2 billion in ticket revenue. But sales have plummeted since the holiday. Leading local news outlet Caixin reported Tuesday that sales fell 70 percent in the week after the holiday, followed by another decline of 59 percent in the following week. That compares to 2019’s post-holiday declines of 45.6 percent and 53.4 percent, week-to-week.
The softness of the market after the holiday blockbuster bonanza is reflected in the earnings of the U.S. studio titles that have opened over the past two weekends. Warner Bros.’ Tom and Jerry debuted Feb. 26 and has earned just under $15 million; Disney’s Raya and The Last Dragon opened March 5 and has earned a little over $10 million. Meanwhile, local blockbusters Hi, Mom and Detective Chinatown 3 have earned $792 million and $682 million, respectively, since their release in early February.
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