Oscar Contenders Line Up for Box Office Bump in China

1917_19_Still - Publicity - H 2019
Universal Pictures

Best picture nominees 'Marriage Story,' 'Jojo Rabbit' and 'Little Women' have locked down release dates shortly after the Oscars ceremony, while Sam Mendes' '1917' is lining up distribution with Alibaba Pictures and STX is in talks to bring Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' to China.

A trio of Oscar best picture contenders will hit the China market shortly after the Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 9, Beijing film authorities revealed Tuesday.

The films' producers and their local distributors will be hoping for the kind of post-Oscars bump that has lifted past awards season favorites in China. Sources in Beijing tell The Hollywood Reporter that several other Oscar-nominated Hollywood titles also are in advanced talks to lock down local release dates.

Taika Waititi's JoJo Rabbit will be the first nominee to open after the Oscars ceremony, bowing on Feb. 12 in a limited release. It will be followed just two days later by a wide release of Greta Gerwig's Little Women on Feb.14. Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story will be the next out on Feb. 28, also in a wide release (Beijing-based Road Pictures acquired the acclaimed drama from Netflix earlier this month).

Sam Mendes' WWI epic 1917 also is getting close to securing a February release, sources close to China Film Group tell THR. The film was produced by Amblin Entertainment, co-owned by Chinese studio Alibaba Pictures, which handles most of the studio's China releases. Alibaba Pictures has acquired the local rights to 1917 and will give it a nationwide rollout through its Taopiaopiao ticketing service, a source in contact with the company says. 

STX Entertainment, meanwhile, has been in talks with local distributor E Stars about a deal to release Martin Scorsese's The Irishman in China sometime early this year. STX retained the China distribution rights to the film after Netflix acquired it for the rest of the world back in 2016. Talks are ongoing, but sources close to state distributor China Film Group say there is some concern over how the film's length — it runs three hours and 30 minutes — might affect market potential. It's also still awaiting censorship approval. 

Best picture nominee Ford v Ferrari is expected to get a sizable release in China but it has yet to secure a date. Same goes for Tom Hanks' A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which was co-financed by China's Tencent Pictures. 

One factor that should impact the scope and scale of the various U.S. prestige titles' China releases is how they actually fare at the Oscars. Academy Awards glory has been known to deliver a substantial boost at China's box office. Among film lovers, the Oscars are closely followed in the country, where awards, rankings and official commendations tend to be held in especially high esteem.

Last year's best picture winner, Green Book, earned a remarkable $70 million in China, despite featuring a culturally remote story about race relations in the 1960s American South.

The first U.S. title to make a big post-Oscars showing was The Revenant, which earned $59 million, a then unprecedented sum for a dark drama from overseas. Leonardo DiCaprio has been a fan favorite in China ever since Titanic, and filmgoers rushed to support the film after he finally bagged his first best actor Oscar.

Other award winners like La La Land (2017) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018) similarly have over-performed for films of their category, earning $36 million and $10.3 million, respectively (musicals, in particular, had never fared so well in China).

Universal's Dolittle will join the fray with a wide release confirmed for Feb. 21. Star Robert Downey Jr., adored in China thanks to Iron Man, is expected to promote the film aggressively.

Hollywood's busy February release schedule will test the market's appetite for high-minded U.S. counter-programming to the Chinese blockbuster spree that immediately precedes it. This year's China New Year holiday, also known as Spring Festival, runs Jan. 24-30, and already nearly a dozen high-profile Chinese tentpoles are expected to release that same week.