China's 2019 Box Office Turns to Growth Thanks to Anniversary Blockbusters

The Climbers Still 1  - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Edko Films

Three propagandistic tentpoles — 'My People, My Country,' 'The Pilot' and 'The Climbers' — have together earned nearly $850 million in China over the past two weeks.

For much of 2019, China's movie box office has flirted with its first full-year decline in decades. But a spate of local blockbusters released over the People's Republic of China's 70th anniversary holiday on Oct. 1 have nudged the market back into growth mode.

As of Sept 30, China's box office was down 3 percent for the year, totaling $6.65 billion compared with $6.86 billion by the same time in 2018. A series of aggressive censorship actions in Beijing targeting the country's own would-be movie hits has weighed on China's content-hungry theatrical sector throughout the year.

By the end of Sunday, Oct. 14, the market was up 3.9 percent, however, having climbed to $7.52 billion for the year, according to box office analyst Artisan Gateway.

Driving the turnaround over the intervening two weeks was the successful launch of a trio of patriotic Chinese blockbusters, all of them produced to commemorate the nation's highly symbolic anniversary. Together, the three titles earned nearly $850 million.

Leading the way was My People, My Country, a propagandistic anthology drama film of seven shorts, each of them telling a story commemorating a different moment of glory since the PRC's establishment in 1949. Produced by state-backed Huaxia Film Distribution, the film had climbed to $361.5 million by Sunday. The film's seven segments were directed by a collection of China's most in-demand filmmakers, including Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao and Wen Muye.

Bona Film Group's The Captain, something like a Chinese version of Tom Hanks' Sully, has ranked first at the box office for much of the past week, steadily gaining on My Country, My People. Directed by Andrew Lau and starring Zhang Hanyu, the film is a re-creation of the 2018 Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633 incident, in which a Chinese commercial jet's windshield broke mid-flight, forcing the pilot to execute a heroic emergency landing. The movie has totaled $343 million to date.

Coming in third for the holiday stretch was Shanghai Film Group's The Climbers, which stars local action hero Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior 2) and chronicles the first real-life Chinese ascent of Mr. Everest. The Climbers' box office total has reached $138 million, a slight disappointment for a Wu Jing film, but still a healthy sum.

DreamWorks Animation's Abominable also was hoping to do big business during the lucrative holiday corridor but was largely left behind. Despite featuring a China-linked story and being co-produced by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, the film fizzled in the Middle Kingdom, earning just $14.8 million in its first two weeks.

Hollywood will be back in the China market in a bigger way Friday with the release of Arg Lee and Will Smith's Gemini Man. Although the film has been savaged by critics stateside, hopes are high that it can make up some of its hefty $140 budget in China. Chinese conglomerate Fosun Group has a 25 percent equity stake in the film, and Alibaba has a 5 percent piece. The Skydance and Paramount film opened in third in the U.S. with an estimated $20.5 million, for a worldwide $59.5 million total including 58 international markets.

Disney's Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will open head-to-head with Gemini Man in China on Friday. The first Maleficent film earned $48 million in the Middle Kingdom five years ago.