Why China Is Panning 'Pan'

Pan Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Pan Still - H 2015

While other under-performing Hollywood movies have been bailed out by Chinese audiences, Warner Bros.' 'Pan' had one of the worst studio launches of all time there.

Over the past decade, Hollywood has introduced China's movie-going masses to superheroes of every conceivable shape and size — hulks, pirates, spider-people, an Iron Man and much else. In return, the world's second-largest film market has occasionally flexed some superpowers of its own, bailing out movies that have flopped or underperformed.

Earlier this year, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator: Genisys became the latest beneficiary of the Chinese audience's largess. The $155 million budget film from Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions was given a lifeline when it made $82.8 million in eight days, just shy of its $89.4 million North American gross after nine weeks (it ended with $112.8 million in China). Previously, Pacific Rim, Escape Plan and Cloud Atlas all achieved China grosses that were larger than their North America runs.

The producers behind Pan, Warner Bros.' ambitious but disastrously underperforming Peter Pan origin movie, were undoubtedly hoping for a similar China rescue when the film debuted across the country last Thursday. Instead, Pan did even worse there. 

How bad was it?

The Joe Wright-directed live-action movie debuted with a screening share of approximately 21.2 percent, but after earning just $740,000 on opening night, it lost over half of its screenings by day two. By Sunday, the film had mustered a scant $3.4 million over its first four days — easily the worst China launch by a studio film in recent memory (even Tomorrowland, which was considered a China disappointment in June, managed $14.11 million in six days).

As of Monday, Pan had grossed $30 million in North America and $63.8 million internationally. In order to recoup its $150 million production budget, plus global marketing costs, it's estimated the movie needed to make at least $400 million to turn a profit. 

Remaining international territories were the last hope — and China needed to play a part commensurate with its market footprint. An analyst for Chinese media outlet Sina, however, has predicted Pan won't come away with more than 40 million yuan ($6.28 million).

So why have the Chinese shunned Pan when they've defused other potential bombs?

Most importantly, of course, the buzz from Chinese viewers who did see it has been lukewarm to bad — no different than in North America, where Pan's Rotten Tomatoes score among critics currently sits at 26 percent, and 50 percent for moviegoers. On Douban and Mtime, China's two leading movie discussion sites, the film has received ratings of 6.5 and 6.8, respectively (the equivalent of a 3-star review). The film has also received far fewer user reviews and comments than competing titles, and many reviewers have praised the film's effects while saying the story left them cold. 

Even worse, Pan came out amidst a crowded field of similarly targeted, family-friendly foreign films — for which Warner Bros. can thank China's state film regulators, which tend to strategically schedule Hollywood titles head-to-head to diminish their edge over local movies.

When a Hollywood tentpole is the only big-budget global show in town, Chinese audiences will generally turn out for it, regardless of the consensus on story quality — especially for high-concept, effects-heavy sci-fi. When Terminator opened in late August, it had the benefit of being the only Hollywood movie in the market at the time — and right after the long summer blackout period, when Chinese regulators keep Hollywood titles out and give domestically produced films an uncontested run for peak moviegoing weeks. By the time the T-800 arrived on the scene, Chinese film fans were fiending for some Hollywood CGI.

Pan wasn't so lucky. During its opening weekend, the 3D family film faced off against French animated feature The Little Prince (a remarkably like-minded big-budget adaptation of a cherished kids fable, also about the evanescence of youth), Japan's boyhood-themed amine Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno (a rare local showing of a Japanese animation, which Chinese youth generally adore but rarely get to see because of political strains between the two Asian powers) and Ant-Man, the most family-friendly movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Local moviegoers simply preferred the rivals. From Friday to Sunday, Ant-Man grossed $22.01 million, Detective Conan took $9.05 million, The Little Prince $5.5 million and Pan its exiguous $2.71 million.

If the boys of Neverland had to compete so fiercely for resources, they would probably grow up pretty fast, too.