China Box Office: 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' Poised to Break Records

Transformers Optimus Prime Sword - H 2014

Transformers Optimus Prime Sword - H 2014

Theater chain owners are excited about the coming box-office free-for-all and believe the fourth installment in the robot franchise could unseat "Avatar" as the all-time record-holder.

Could Avatar’s $221.9 million box-office record in China be on the verge of falling to Transformers: Age of Extinction?

The trademark Transformers logo features on the back of so many cars on Beijing’s second ring road that you feel you are indeed living in Michael Bay’s postapocalyptic world, and the Autobot Nissan in front of you will soon mechanically morph and start yelling metallically.

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Blowing up Chinese cities, snapping up Chinese stars and using clever marketing ploys to woo the growing ranks of fans in the world’s second-biggest market, Paramount is staking a lot on Transformers: Age of Extinction in China.

The movie will open day-and-date in mainland China on June 27, a week after its world bow in Hong Kong, and it closed the country’s biggest film festival, the Shanghai International Film Festival, last week.

Fang Bin, vice general manager of Dadi, which operates theaters in mostly second- and third-tier cities and whose box office is second only to Wanda Cinema Line in China, said expectations are high.

“At the moment, industry people really have a high expectation about Transformers: Age of Extinction. They are saying it’s going to overtake Avatar and do 1.5 billion yuan ($240 million) box office,” Fang told the Jinjiang Evening News.

There have been three Transformers movies so far, and each generating more box-office receipts in China than the last. The previous installment of the franchise, Dark of the Moon, earned $177.9 million in China.

“This brand is rooted in Chinese people,” Fang said.

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Secondly, as the market has developed, so too have people’s viewing habits.

“In 2011, Transformers: Dark of the Moon was No. 1 with over 1 billion yuan box office," Fang said. "But back then, there were less than 10,000 [screens]. Now there are more than double that number of screens, so there can be no doubt the box office of Transformers: Age of Extinction will exceed Dark of the Moon."

Age of Extinction has been carefully constructed to make sure its DNA has strong Chinese strains. Among the stars are popular Li Bingbing and heartthrob Han Geng. Young actors in the fourth installment were chosen via a Chinese reality TV show.

In an inspired piece of marketing, Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor posted videos in China wishing nearly 10 million high school students good luck in their important college entrance exams earlier this month.

Liu Hui, manager of Beijing's UME International Cineplex, said he is bullish on the outlook for Transformers: Age of Extinction.

“We will give over 50 percent of our screens to it. The box office should certainly be over 1 billion yuan ($160 million),” Liu was quoted as saying on iFeng.

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UME International Cineplex was founded by Hong Kong producer See-Yuen Ng and has theaters in many Chinese cities including Shanghai, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Chengdu. By the end of 2013, it had 22 cinemas, 253 screens and 31,700 seats, with box-office revenue of around $100 million.

There are some possible obstacles to bumper box office for Age of Extinction, and they have nothing to do with director Bay's experiences with local bullies in Hong Kong, which he has shrugged off.

There are concerns about the fallout after Beijing Pangu Investment, which owns the iconic Pangu Plaza near the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, pulled out of a sponsorship deal with the producers, claiming breach of contract. Paramount said Pangu Plaza has “a prominent placement in Transformers 4, and it looks beautiful onscreen” and hopes that the two companies can resolve their differences.

Also, Hollywood’s Chinese box-office record this year is really impressive.

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Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla took $37 million in its opening weekend, while Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow took $24.67 million in its first full week to bring its cume to $50.57 million, and 20th Century Fox tentpole X-Men: Days of Future Past had taken nearly $115 million after 24 days in China.

The government is keen to promote Chinese movies, so if Transformers 4 starts to run away with the box office, it will be interesting to see how Beijing reacts, perhaps by curtailing its run, or imposing one of those periods to promote Chinese films.

The problem is there aren’t really any domestic movies out there big enough to fill the gap. The closest would be teen social drama Tiny Times 3, which is set for release July 17. This gives Transformers: Age of Extinction a clear run.