'Crazy Rich Asians' Scores Surprise Release in China

After Warner Bros. failed to hear back from China's film bureau over the summer, some analysts had begun to speculate that Beijing regulators might block the film due to its celebration of decadence.

Warner Bros. summer hit Crazy Rich Asians has landed a lucrative release date in China, Asia's richest box-office territory, after all.

After weeks of doubt, Chinese regulators revealed Monday that the film would open in the massive market Nov. 30. 

When Warner Bros. failed to hear back from Beijing about the film's fate over the summer, some analysts began to speculate that the rom-com had been rejected by the country's censors over its very un-socialist celebration of decadence and ostentatious wealth. 

Others closer to the market argued that the film might be caught up in a regulatory backlog caused by recent structural changes at China's Film Bureau, the result of which was a more cautious and slower-moving approvals process. 

Warner Bros., meanwhile, maintained that it had heard no final ruling and remained optimistic. The latter theory now appears to more closely fit the case.

In addition to Crazy Rich Asians, a slew of high-profile Hollywood studio titles learned of their China release dates Monday.

They include: Universal's The House With a Clock in Its Walls opening Nov. 1; Disney's The Nutcracker and the Four Realms bowing Nov. 2; Sony's Venom on Nov. 9; Warner Bros.' Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald on Nov. 16; Disney animation Ralph Breaks the Internet on Nov. 23; and Warner Bros.' much-anticipated DC superhero title Aquaman on Dec. 7.

Analysts will be watching to see whether the surge of Hollywood outings throughout November helps the U.S. studios overcome what has otherwise been a surprisingly downbeat year in China. As of the end of September, ticket revenue for studio imports was down 24 percent compared with the same period in 2017. The local box-office overall, however, has remained up a healthy 13.7 percent for the year to date, with Chinese blockbusters riding high.

Hollywood's mysterious China downturn was also notable given that the North American box office has been enjoying a banner year, with ticket sales up 14 percent during the summer. The divergence suggests a possible change in Chinese tastes — a growing preference for local movies over imported foreign fare, is the fear — rather than an off-year in product quality.

China's film market is in near constant flux and regulatory response, however. The gush of Hollywood content in the market in November could be a regulatory response to the even more recent slip of local titles during China's National Day holiday period in October, which is usually one of the country's most lucrative moviegoing seasons. Ticket sales during the weeklong holiday fell 22 percent this year from 2017, as a raft of Chinese new releases fell mostly flat. 

The hardworking state employees at China's film bureau are forever manning various regulatory levers — including which imported films they allow into the market, on what release date and against which competition — to ensure that Chinese films outperform the Hollywood interlopers overall, but also that top-line market growth for the year remains robust.