AFM: Local Titles Fill the Studio Gap, But Can They Replace Blockbuster Box Office?

Mads Mikkelsen in 'Another Round' from Thomas Vinterberg
Henrik Ohsten

With no Hollywood competition, Thomas Vinterberg's 'Another Round' has become the number one film in Denmark this year.

As the studios hold back their tentpole titles, countries with strong local industries — from Denmark and France to China and South Korea — have seen a box office bump for homegrown movies. 

The biggest film of 2020 won't be Tenet.

Christopher Nolan's time-traveling tentpole might have been the only major release from a U.S. studio since the coronavirus pandemic, but its $350 million box office take pales beside The Eight Hundred. The patriotic war film from China's Huayi Brothers has grossed $460 million to date, making it the biggest movie worldwide of 2020.

Within China, Tenet took $65.5 million, a fraction of the $415 million Beijing Culture's patriotic ensemble film My People, My Homeland, or the $240 million Beijing Enlight's 3D animation Jiang Ziya: Legend Of Deification earned in the territory. 

China's cinemas, it seems, can easily do without Hollywood.

And they're not alone. The decision by the U.S. studios, amid COVID-19, to push back the release of virtually all of their big movies — Sony/MGM's No Time to Die, Disney's Black Widow, and Paramount's Top Gun: Maverick among them — has left a big gap in the global theatrical market. But, surprisingly, in many countries, that gap is being filled by homegrown movies. 

In Japan, Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train, Toho, and Aniplex's big-screen adaptation of a popular TV anime series, has earned $200 million to date, making it the number five top-grossing film ever in the territory. Audiences have come out in force for Toho's live-action manga adaptation From Today, It's My Turn: The Movie ($47.8 million) and Fuji TV's comedy crime flick The Confidence Man JP: Princess ($36 million), as well. 

Thomas Vinterberg's dramedy Another Round has been a box office smash in its native Denmark, selling more than 726,00 tickets, making it the top title in the territory this year. In France, Gaumont's politically incorrect comedy Tout simplement noir ($6.3 million) and SND Films' family feature Les blagues de Toto ($9 million) helped half-fill the country's limited capacity theaters before the country went into its second lockdown last month. Poland has seen a string of local-language hits — including Kino Swiat's crime drama Petla ($3 million) and period piece 25 Years of Innocence ($4 million) — since the country came out of COVID lockdown in Spring. 

"Countries that had a strong local-language market before COVID have been much more resilient, audiences have come back to see those [home-grown] movies," says Claude-Eric Poiroux, general director of pan-European art-house cinema network Europa Cinemas.

That's little comfort for theater owners across much of Europe, which has seen cinemas shut down again amid rising COVID-19 infection rates. But it does bode well for a quick recovery, even without the help of the U.S. studios. 

Tim King, executive vp of SF Studios in Sweden warns, however, that there are few countries with the capacity to produce sufficient local films to fill the gap left by Hollywood.  

"I know France has a lot of local productions but in Scandinavia right now we have maybe 2-3 new Scandinavian titles hitting cinemas every week," King says. "That's not enough to build a recovery on."

The situation in South Korea, the world's fifth-largest theatrical market, is instructive. Although theaters there never fully shut down, and there have been a number of local-language hits this year — Yeon Sang-ho zombie sequel Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula ($28.7.million) and the Thailand-set action thriller Deliver Us From Evil ($34.6 million) among them — the lack of Hollywood product has had an impact. 

"The nature of our market is that it usually consists of two halves — Hollywood film and Korean film — and they each usually take around 50 percent," says Kim Jin-sun, CEO of South Korean film studio and exhibitor Megabox Plus M. "Just because one half disappears, it doesn't mean the other 50 percent will suddenly grow to 70 percent or 80 percent. It actually has shrunk to something like 30 percent, because we have less good content to pull people back into the cinemas and remind them that it's safe to come back into the theater."

Megabox, which controls around a fifth of all cinemas in South Korea, is actually following the Hollywood studios and pushing back the release dates of some of its bigger Korean films. Notes the CEO: "The market can only thrive when there is healthy, positive competition between [local language] and Hollywood films."