China Box Office: 'The Meg' Devours $50 Million During Controversial Weekend

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Chinese comedy adventure 'iPartment' earned $44 million Friday before being brought down by bad reviews and conspiracy theories, while survival comedy 'The Island' claimed first place with $77 million.

It was a riotous weekend at the Chinese box office, with three major films opening head to head while allegations of fraud dogged an early frontrunner.

Local comedy The Island, the directorial debut of Chinese actor Huang Bo, secured the win late in the weekend, totaling $77.1 million. The comedy was followed in second place by TV sitcom adaptation iPartment with $71.2 million; Warner Bros.' giant shark movie The Meg, meanwhile, debuted in third with a robust $50.3 million.

iPartment (also known as Love Apartment) initially appeared set to dominate the frame, opening with a whopping $44.2 million Friday. But a disparity between the film's huge first day and devastatingly low review scores — it currently has a rating of 2.7/10 on China's Rotten Tomatoes-like reviews aggregator Douban — soon prompted many industry insiders to cry foul. Critics posited that the film's producers must have advance-purchased an unusually large amount of tickets to their own film — a common but officially frowned-upon Chinese marketing practice used to create the appearance of a hit.

Others have argued that the original TV show's legions of fans were simply let down by the bizarre storytelling approach pursued by the film adaptation. The original iPartment TV series, which aired from 2009 to 2012, is widely referred to as "China's answer to Friends." The Chinese show closely followed the hit 1990s NBC sitcom's template, featuring the romantic travails of seven friends living in the same apartment building in a big Chinese city. The film version, however, featured the same cast but added the rather surprising twist of projecting the original characters into the plot of an action adventure film about tomb-raiding (picture Ross, Rachel and company co-starring in Indiana Jones 6). The prerelease marketing made no mention of this wild departure from the original series, with the producers apparently planning it as a surprise.

The industry figures arguing against the allegations of fraud contend that the big presales figures simply reflect Chinese millennials' nostalgic attachment to the original show, while the poor reviews are evidence of their disappointment in the deviation from the original.

In any case, by Sunday the tide had turned against iPartment and The Island and The Meg were in ascendance.

Produced by Enlight Pictures, Alibaba and Jackie Chan's studio Sparkle Roll Media, The Island follows a group of co-workers who get shipwrecked on a desert island and soon split into rival factions as they struggle to survive. Having earned $27.1 million Sunday — over iPartment's dwindling $8.4 million — The Island will easily sail past the $100 million mark this week.

The Meg, meanwhile, is also gaining momentum. It earned a strong $7 million on Imax for the full weekend and saw its daily earnings Sunday climb to $17.4 million. The film is co-financed by Beijing-based Gravity Pictures, the film production arm of local conglomerate China Media Capital Inc., which also is handling Middle Kingdom distribution duties.

Directed by Jon Turteltaub, the film stars Chinese actress Li Bingbing alongside Jason Statham as the leaders of a group of scientists trying to stop a mammoth prehistoric shark from wreaking havoc. As well as an A-list Chinese star, The Meg features key scenes in Shanghai and a particularly memorable beach scene on the holiday island of Sanya in a further attempt to appeal to Chinese moviegoers. 

Proving the enduring summertime appeal of B-movie shark flicks, The Meg also outperformed in North America, taking in $44.5 million, boosting its global tally to $141.3 million. It's all to the good for Warner Bros. and Gravity, which spent at least $150 million to produce the long-in-the-making film. The Meg also represents a rare success for a project jointly produced by the U.S and China.

The only holdover to put up a sizable fight was comedy smash Hello Mr Billionaire, which added $11.6 million for a three-weekend total to $341 million.

Friday will bring the belated release of Sony's Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation. The animated hit will open opposite Chinese action comedy Europe Raiders, starring Tony Leung and Kris Wu, and fantasy comedy Go Brother, from Wanda Pictures.