China Box Office: Why 'Gravity' Soared Past 'Catching Fire'

"Gravity" has appealed to Chinese pride in its space program and the nation’s love of 3D visuals.

A sympathetic portrayal of the country's space program (plus help from piracy?) fueled the surprise upset of the latest in Lionsgate's "Hunger Games" franchise.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Katniss Everdeen is no match for Dr. Ryan Stone. At least not in China.

Gravity opened Nov. 19 in the country, going head-to-head with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which bowed Nov. 21. As of Dec. 8, the Sandra Bullock space thriller had grossed $63.7 million versus the Jennifer Lawrence starrer's $27.1 million. Gravity's average ticket price of $6.70 also was higher than the Hunger Games sequel's $5.20 because more people went to see it in 3D and in Imax theaters.

PHOTOS: It's Lonely Out Here: 'Gravity' and 10 More Films About Isolation

Gravity has become a social media phenomenon in China, where the country's space program is new and popular. China first launched a man into space in 2003, and since then there's been a space walk, a woman astronaut and a recent mission to land the Jade Rabbit rover on the moon. China has advanced only to where the U.S. was in the 1960s, but its program has become a symbol of the country's growing progress.

And Gravity is sympathetic to those efforts. In one scene, Bullock's character is rescued by a Chinese ship, and there are nods to China's technological abilities throughout. "Before the release and during the first week of release, Gravity was discussed a lot and had a relatively high number of comments and traffic," says Huang Ting, an analyst with research group EntGroup.

STORY: China Box Office: 'Gravity' Soars Past 'Catching Fire'

The buzz prompted Chinese theater managers to set more than 175,000 showings of Gravity, more than twice that of Catching Fire. By contrast, Catching Fire has grossed $672.6 million worldwide, compared with Gravity's $630.8 million since its rollout began in October.

Another reason for the film's appeal in China could be that many people watched a pirated version of the Alfonso Cuaron film, then went to the theater to see the visuals in 3D. "Compared to Europe and America, the fever for 3D and Imax hasn't abated," says Huang. "Chinese audiences still like to go to the cinema to watch films with strong VFX."