Can ‘Luca’ And ‘Free Guy’ Jumpstart Hollywood’s China Box Office Comeback?

LucaAndFree GuyHollywood’s return to China signals Hollywood’s return. But does an audience spoiled rotten with high-quality Chinese tentpoles still care about American blockbusters and movies?

Pixar’s Luca opened in China yesterday with $1.2 million. This is second to Raging Fire’s $2.9 million openings on Friday. The weekend of July 30 saw the opening of the final film by Benny Chan, which earned $37 million. It has now made $136.5million and could surpass Man4 to be Donnie Yen’s biggest ever movie in China. Luca is the first Hollywood export since Peter Rabbit, The Runaway in May.

China has always had a mid-summer blackout period, where Chinese movies only get to perform theatrically. Due to global box office struggles, the blackout proved more difficult than expected. Hollywood’s big guns are back in China, with Luca opening this weekend and Free Guy opening next. Are they, uh? more extensive than ever before? Hollywood sure hopes so, mainly because the rest of the world (and yes, China) are still facing additional Covid-related issues.

Luca’s first day was not great, but word of mouth (9.1 Maoyan, 8.9 Taopiaopiaoo) is encouraging. Pixar movies are known to have a strong foothold in China, even after a slow start. Soul opened in late 2020 with $5.5million. In weekend two, it jumped to $13.8million and then legged out to $57million. Coco also opened in late November 2018 with $17million. In weekend two, it earned $44 million and set a new record of $189 million.

Although $57million is more likely to be a best-case scenario than $189million (especially considering HD Disney+ rips that have been available online since mid-June), we’ll still see how that turns out. Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy opens next week. This free guy has earned $60m worldwide in a non-Covid period and is a strong candidate for breakout success. Shawn Levy’s well-reviewed original, which made more than/under $115M worldwide, is heavily influenced and influenced both by American pop culture and video game culture.

Both factors helped Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One earn $220million in 2018. It also made Ernest Cline’s $175million adaptation into an $881 million-grossing smash. Hollywood has been away from China for most of the time, except for Godzilla Vs. Kong ($188m) and F9 ($216m). Dolittle is a “hit” because the film almost reached $20 million. This is a very different situation for a territory that was once Hollywood’s lifeline.

It wasn’t true before Covid. And it certainly isn’t true now. Despite being largely devoid of Hollywood superstars, the industry’s dependence upon homegrown talent has grown in recent years. China was not Hollywood’s only savior before the pandemic. Yes, money is money. However, China is much more skilled at artificially increasing (since studios are often paid 25% for tickets compared to around 50% elsewhere) the global revenues of successful films.

Chinese audiences were drawn to Dark of the Moon ($166m in 2011) and Age of Extinction ($300m in 2014) because they enjoyed Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. They loved the MCU and flocked towards MCU movies. Avengers Infinity War made $356million in China. That’s still only 17% of its $2.048billion global total. Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom earned 20% ($267M) of its $1.308Billion total in China. Furious 7earned 26%.

Most of the tentpoles that were disappointing or simply unpopular in China weren’t enough to be considered hits. Godzilla King of the Monsters made $135 million in 2019, though the film’s total of $385 million was still an impressive sum. Warcraft grossed $220m in China (from a frontloaded $190 million Wed/Thurs debut). However, the $165 million flick was still considered a miss at $438m in 2016. Universal’s Dark Universe was not saved by The Mummy earning $81million in China.

Worse, temporary success for otherwise disappointing tentpoles Terminator Genisys ($113M from a $26M opening day) and X-Men: Apocalypse $123M led to the false hope that those franchises were still alive. RIP – Terminator Dark Fate and X-Men Dark Phoenix and Pacific Rim: Uprising. In 2017/2018, however, big-ish movies received a boost from China for a brief period. This was not just for grindhouse actioners like London Has Fallen, but also for the mainstream films such as The Mechanic: Resurrection.

Think Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ($159m in China for a $30 million budget), XXXX: The Return of Xander cage (168m/$385m/$80m), Kong, Skull Island (168m/$568m/$185m), and Bumblebee (171 million/$468m/$130m) and War for the Planet of the Apes (1113 million/$490m/$150m). A $228 million Chinese budget couldn’t make Transformers($605million/$150 million) a hit.

In late 2018, Marvel (Venom), Captain Marvel, and DC (Aquaman) were more prevalent in China than North America. The Fast Saga (Hobbs & Shaw, $201 million) was the only Chinese movie that made it to the top of the Chinese box office. Other than that, Marvel, DC, and China ruled. Long-time readers will know that I have warned that China doesn’t need Hollywood biggies since late 2014. I first saw Gone with the Bullets in late 2014. China earned $83million for the film that was partly shot using 3-D IMAX cameras.

It suggested an era when local biggies could approximate Hollywood’s Hollywood version, at least in the sense of negating exports. We witnessed a steady rise in Chinese blockbusters from 2015 to 2020. They brought in box-office totals that would envy any Hollywood executive. Monster Hunt earned $385million in 2015, surpassing Furious 7 ($392million) to become the most significant Chinese-made film. Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (a bonkers-bananas environmental fantasy/horror/romance) earned $554 million in early 2016.

Legendary had Yimou Zhu’s The Great Wall in mind. Legendary saw it as a Hollywood co-production with China that would have high-reward appeal in both markets. While the $154 million that Matt Damon/Pedro Pascal/Tianjin/Andy Lau action movie fantasy earned in China in 2016 was impressive, it wasn’t enough for the $150 million films to make worldwide (including $45 million in North America) and a mere $334million global. China doesn’t need American movie stars to achieve manufactured respectability when it has its treats.

Wolf Warrior II is a “What-if Rambo, First Blood part II, and Chinese?” nationalistic action show starring Wu Jing. The film earned $854million in China alone. It’s still higher than any movie except for Avengers: Endgame ($865million domestic) and The Force Awakens ($937million domestic). Hi, Mom. A Chinese movie that was released in early 2021 is the next largest single-territory earner. It grossed $825m alongside Detective Chinatown.

The action-comedy trilogy earned $125million in 2015, $575million in 2018, and $685million in 2021. This is more than the unadjusted domestic total for The Dark Knight trilogy. Hi, Mom; Wolf Warrior II and Monster Hunt 2 were popular choices for Chinese moviegoers. They also enjoyed The Wandering Earth ($699m in early 2019), Monster Hunt 2 (361m in early 2018), The Wandering Earth ($699m in early 2019), and the animated Ne Zaha ($722m in summer 2019). Additionally, they saw two of the top global releases of 2020, My People My Homeland (430 million) or The Eight Hundred (475 million).

Japan’s anime adaptation Demon Slayer: The Movie ($400 million in Japan, more than $500 million globally) was the top global grosser for 2020. But I digress. We have not determined if the DC/Marvel movies that performed well in 2018/2019 were a trend or just a passing fluke. Also, we don’t know if this new solo superhero flick (here in 2018, the most giant non-ensemble superhero movie was Ant-Man and the Wasp with $125m) will continue to outperform everything else.

Here’s a new question. Black Widowis more likely to be attacked by piracy, even if it does play in China. Comic book dominance could be put on the back burner, given or take that “they loved the first one” entries such as Aquaman, the Lost Kingdom, Venom, Let There Be Carnage, Spider-Man: The Way Home.

If this is the case, and it is not an immense “if,” then a drop in popularity for superhero movies will lead to a rise in Hollywood flicks. Eternals and Shang Chi being less comprehensive will lead to better Chinese box offices for Matrix 4: No Time to Die and Top Gun – Maverick. Free Guy is as doomed and ruined as Mulan, Bad Boys For Life, and Sonic the Hedgehog. The freed-up revenue will continue to fuel the current successful Chinese tentpoles.

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Samatha Vale
Samatha a senior writer for HC's entertainment team. She is an entreprenuer, mother and an excellent writer. She's also an avid reader, music enthusiast and all around inquisitive person - which is just a nice way of saying she's nosy.

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