Will China Rescue Dwayne Johnson's 'Skyscraper'?

Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures

Johnson's star appeal, his track record in China and the encouraging precedent of 'Rampage' are among factors that could work in its favor, but there are also challenges.

When Legendary Entertainment and Universal Pictures' Skyscraper opened in North America last weekend, action hero Dwayne Johnson was subjected to an unfamiliar description — weakness.

The film, which has frequently been described as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, opened far behind expectations, earning just $25.5 million and losing the weekend to Hotel Transylvania 3 in an embarrassing upset. It also didn't fare particularly well overseas, pulling in just $40.4 million from its first 57 markets. That was all bad news for a film that cost a hefty $125 million-$129 million to produce before marketing.

Only one box-office territory remains with the scale to decisively turn things around for Skyscraper — China.

Filmgoers in the world's most populous nation have routinely come out in force for Johnson. Rampage (2018), his most recent release, might have looked a little rocky after it brought in just $99 million in North America. But it then turned in Hollywood's third-best performance of 2018 in the Middle Kingdom, earning a heroic $156.4 million. Furious 7 and The Fate of the Furious, in which Johnson co-stars, also happen to be the two biggest Hollywood hits ever in China.

So what are the chances of the Middle Kingdom will repeat a rescue mission for The Rock?

Aside from the star appeal of Johnson and the encouraging precedent of Rampage, analysts say Skyscraper has several other factors working in its favor.

The film's lead producer, Legendary Entertainment, is owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, which controls more movie screens in China than any other exhibitor. Thanks to Wanda's backing, past Legendary titles have consistently over-performed in China (consider Warcraft, which earned $213 million there, compared to $47 million in North America).

Some of the film's intrinsic characteristics also appear a good fit for China, points out Rance Pow, president of Shanghai-based cinema consulting firm Artisan Gateway. "The film is set in Hong Kong, it tells a story about a father’s heroism to rescue his family, and it's a VFX-driven action film in 3D" — all positives for Chinese audiences.

Pow's team predicts Skyscraper will open at roughly RMB 200 million-RMB 250 million ($30 million-$37 million) for an eventual China total of RMB 600 million-RMB 700 million ($89 million-$104 million).

That would put Skyscraper on par with Johnson's San Andreas ($103 million in China) and slightly ahead of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ($78 million).

James Li, co-founder of Beijing-based market research firm Fanink, says his company's pre-release tracking also indicates a solid, if not spectacular opening. "Basically, it has relatively high market heat, but it doesn't look like it will become a huge blockbuster in China," he says. "Key measures — awareness and first-choice preference — are moderate compared to Dwayne Johnson's other movies released in China."

Skyscraper will mostly have the weekend to itself among other foreign imports. Open Road's Showdogs and Australian-German animation film Maya the Bee Movie also open Friday, but can hardly be expected to mount much of a challenge.

Jimmy Wu, chairman of Chinese movie theater chain Lumiere Pavilions, cautions that some of the domestic Chinese holdovers could potentially be a bigger threat to Skyscraper's debut. Smash hit social drama Dying to Survive has dominated the past three weekends and had earned $396 million as of Wednesday. And local icon Jiang Wen's latest period action film as a co-star and director, Hidden Man, will only be entering its second frame on Friday — the film has earned $63 million so far. Wu predicts Skyscraper to total RMB 650 million ($96 million).

"It could be difficult for [Skyscraper] to do really well if these two local movies continue to perform strongly," Wu says, adding that his team will be paying close attention to how the various titles stack up on Friday, and allocating screen share accordingly throughout the weekend.

Adds Pow: "As we’ve seen in the past, China is a tricky market to forecast in on any given week."