Hollywood and the Limits of China's Box Office

Movies like Tomb Raider and Ready Player One are making more money in the world’s fastest-growing film market than they are in America. But numbers can be misleading.

A still from 'Ready Player One'
A still from Ready Player One (Warner Bros.)

China’s moviegoers have long figured into Hollywood accounting. More than a decade ago, the world’s most populous country started opening new theaters at a prodigious rate and began permitting the release of more and more American films. Even though U.S. studios make less money on movies released in China than they do, collectively, elsewhere around the globe, the Chinese market is still vital and has room for major growth. On Monday, Variety reported that China’s box office even overtook North America’s in the first quarter of 2018 (though it will be difficult to maintain that boost throughout the rest of the year).

At the moment, it’s comparatively rare for a Hollywood film to make more money in China than in North America on its opening weekend. But for the last three weeks, that’s exactly what has happened. Tomb Raider, Pacific Rim Uprising, and Ready Player One all outperformed their North American totals in China alone; the first two more than made up for their disappointing figures stateside. The Chinese market has been influencing studios’ decisions about which films (and which sequels) to greenlight for years, a tendency that’ll likely only continue because of the short-term payoff. But that strategy may not be sustainable, especially as China continues to nurture its powerful, and increasingly popular, homegrown film industry.

At a glance, this past weekend’s box-office totals support the popular idea of China’s daunting box-office influence. Tomb Raider, a rebooted adaptation of the famed video-game series, opened to an unspectacular $23.6 million in the U.S. and Canada on March 16. It was budgeted at close to $100 million and likely won’t come close to recouping that cost domestically. But no matter: On the same weekend, Tomb Raider made $40.8 million in China, and has now grossed $75 million there for a worldwide total of $245 million in three weeks. That’s enough to make a sequel a much more palatable prospect for the Alicia Vikander–starring project.

Pacific Rim Uprising, a sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 hit Pacific Rim, opened to $28 million domestically, but made more than double that in China: a massive $63 million. That’s hardly surprising, considering the Pacific Rim sequel largely exists thanks to Chinese viewers; the original film was seen as a disappointment in the U.S., but did so well overseas that it secured a follow-up. It’s worth noting that a major Chinese actor plays a supporting role in both Tomb Raider and Pacific Rim: The former features Daniel Wu as a sidekick, while the latter sees Jing Tian play a crucial ally.

Finally, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One had an excellent $41.2 million domestic opening ($53 million over the four-day Easter weekend), but did even better in China at $61.7 million. Like Tomb Raider, it’s a film rooted in the video-game world, which is often a recipe for success in China (Warcraft, another title that bombed in America, made back its budget and then some in China alone). By 2020, China’s box-office revenues and the size of its moviegoing audience are expected to officially outstrip North America’s. If audiences get a Tomb Raider 2, Pacific Rim 3, or Ready Player Two anytime soon, that’s probably why.

It’d be too simplistic, however, to predict that the Chinese market will definitively guide all future American-moviemaking business. Yes, studios will continue to favor big blockbuster sequels and franchises as long as they keep printing money on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. And yes, plenty of specific franchises like Tomb Raider might have more cachet abroad than in the U.S. But China has its own thriving film industry that financially eclipses almost anything that Hollywood produces—which complicates things for American studios.

So far in 2018, China’s biggest hit is Operation Red Sea, a military epic that has made $564 million; the second is Detective Chinatown 2, a $535 million–grossing comedy sequel. The biggest American hit in China this year is Black Panther, which has taken a comparatively paltry $103 million—still plenty of money, but an undeniable also-ran. Meanwhile, America’s 2017 top-grosser, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, was an outright bomb in China this year, taking only $42 million.

In the short term, overseas box office is going to help shore up the relative flatness of the U.S. market, given that there’s so much room for theater growth in countries like China, Nigeria, and India. It’ll play a big role in studio decision-making and it’ll sustain some franchises—like the Transformers films or Pirates of the Caribbean—that American audiences have lost interest in. In the long term, though, the picture is much murkier.

The novelty of Hollywood movies geared toward Chinese audiences appears to already be waning, so patronizing efforts like casting a Chinese actor in supporting roles or setting specific scenes in the country may lose their effectiveness. China’s film-production industry has been developing alongside the ongoing theater boom and can now supply the kind of big-budget spectacle that only Hollywood could once provide. Given that, the American moviemaking industry would do well to seriously revisit the profitability of smaller, less risky, and better targeted projects. Because despite this past weekend’s intriguing box-office numbers, focusing on overseas success won’t offer big studios financial relief forever.