What 'Transformers 4's Huge China Opening Means for Hollywood

Transformers: Age of Extinction Still - H 2014
Paramount Pictures

Transformers: Age of Extinction Still - H 2014

The Michael Bay film's $93 million haul makes it the biggest ever three-day opening in the country.

BEIJING -- Chinese theater owners ignored the Film Bureau’s call not to give too many screens to Transformers: Age of Extinction, as the Paramount tentpole notched up the biggest opening weekend ever for a foreign movie with a gross of $93 million.

The $93 million haul in just three days makes it the biggest ever three-day opening in China.  Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons grossed $106 million in its first seven days.

It is is shaping up to be a big year for Hollywood in China, the world’s second largest market.

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The stunning performance of Transformers: Age of Extinction could potentially have implications for the import of Hollywood movies, as the government is keen to foster local talent, and there could be tougher controls on foreign movies coming into the Chinese market.

But for the time being, the glory is all about Michael Bay’s cyborg smash-‘em-up, which have dominated the legions of new screens in China's shopping malls -- currently more than 25,000.

Tickets were sold out at cinemas across Beijing – when The Hollywood Reporter visited a local multiplex at lunchtime on Sunday, we told the first available seat would be at 10 p.m.

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Just last week, Zhang Hongsen, a director at the powerful regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), said 2014 was “the year when the battle between Hollywood and China really begins.”

He called on theater chain owners not to give Age of Extinction 100 percent of the screening time and encouraged them to help boost locally made products.

However, theater chain owners seem happier to reap the rewards of the growing popularity of the Transformers franchise.

Many multiplexes showed Age of Extinction in all their theaters. Based on a trawl of Beijing venues, The Break-up Guru was seemingly the only Chinese movie available -- with just a couple of showings at that.

The movie’s success was boosted by the decision to weave strong Chinese elements into Transformers: Age of Extinction, such as using popular actress Li Bingbing and heartthrob Han Geng, and choosing young actors in the fourth installment via a Chinese reality TV show.

It also premiered in Hong Kong and closed the Shanghai International Film Festival, and also opened day-and-date with the rest of the world.

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It also used many highly visible sites in Beijing and Hong Kong. In the run-up to the movie’s launch, Chinese partner Pangu, whose dragon-shaped hotel features in the film, threatened to pull out of a partnership over their profile in the film, but a last-minute deal was reached with Paramount.

Maleficent and Edge of Tomorrow also appear to have been sidelined in many theaters.

IMAX reported a three-day weekend gross of almost $10 million in China, which more that doubles its previous three-day high of $4.55 million for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at $4.55 million, and beats a previous weekend record of $6.9 million for a six-day weekend for Iron Man 3

The 150 screens, which beats by three screens a previous record opening number, delivered a per-screen of $65,000, compared to the previous best, Titanic 3D’s $51,000. 

Of the top 20 locations in China, 19 had IMAX screens.

The Film Bureau chief’s comments also prompted an online outcry, with people saying censorship by the Film Bureau was one of the reasons why local industry was suffering, not Hollywood imports.

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“If you people from SAPPRFT didn’t trap filmmakers’ feet, stuff filmmakers’ mouths and ears, and use a cloth to cover the filmmakers’ sky, Chinese films would not be like this today,” wrote one.

Yiran Shiwo wrote: “As long as SAPPRFT exists, Chinese films will not free themselves.”

Others were ironic – “If there were no limitations on Chinese films, Chinese audiences’ intelligence will be hurt,” wrote Shou’er Xiansheng.

Shuixin Suoyu said: “I support the promotion of domestic films, but the domestic films must be good enough.”

Chinese movies came out just ahead of foreign films in box office last year, largely boosted by Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which grossed $215 million. 

Donnie Yen's The Monkey King and reality TV adaptation Dad, Where Are We Going? did well during the Lunar New Year holiday in February, but since then Hollywood tentpoles have put in strong performances --Bryan Singer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, has taken $116.49 million so far, and many believe Transformers 4: Age of Extinction is on track to best Avatar’s $221.9 million all-time China box office record.