The Coronavirus outbreak has illustrated how important the Chinese box office has become

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The movie world in 2020 is a very different beast to what it was as recent as a decade ago for a variety of reasons. Previous posts have talked about the rise of the streaming services, the dominance of shared universes like Marvel and the decline of independent fare. But arguably the biggest and most economically pertinent (Hollywood is a business through and through after all), is the growth of China’s influence on worldwide box office numbers.

Indeed, in the age of 46 billion dollar movies, many of those have China to thank for pushing them over the edge, not the US market. The seeds of this was sown as early as 2014, when franchises that were ailing in America like Transformers managed to gain much of their revenue in the Middle Kingdom. The fourth entry in the series, Age of Extinction, fell by over $100 million in the states but earned over $300 million in China, thus making it still a commercial win. More recently, the same trend can be seen for The Fate of the Furious which fell sharply stateside from the previous Furious 7 but earned a barnstorming $392 million in China, making the country the most valuable nation for the Fast and Furious franchise.

Thus, China has served to save movie series’ that had arguably fallen out of favour in the US, but they’re influence also extends to bolstering some of the most successful movies globally, and sometimes even diminishing their success. The ever-popular MCU does boffo business in both the USA and China, something that contributed to Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest grossing movie of all time (unadjusted for inflation). But on the other hand, the Star Wars franchise has never been able to rely on its Chinese box office, something that has arguably counted against the lower performing entries such as The Rise of Skywalker. While it was still able to enter the billion dollar club due to the fact that it’s one of the most popular American franchises domestically, it only just got in there, and the narrative of its success has soured. If China had generated a greater gross, then the story of the latest Star Wars flick may not be so negative.

In terms of Chinese movies, while they rarely have international appeal, domestic audiences show so much support that they often almost reach a billion in the Middle Kingdom alone. The three highest grossing movies in China are non-Hollywood properties, with the most notable being 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, earning $854 million there alone, with only $16 million coming from international ticket sales.

I think I’ve illustrated exhaustively why then that China bolsters the box office of numerous blockbusters each year now, and inform the way in which these movies are made, in order to increase their chances of success. Thus, the general lockdown of China due to the catastrophic effects of the recent Coronavirus outbreak could prove detrimental to many films’ chances of commercial success, as they will have had the Middle Kingdom in mind during the creative and marketing process.

Rumblings of disruption to Chinese box office numbers first began to be reported during what should be the biggest weekend in the country: Lunar New Year. Detective Chinatown 3, deemed to be one of the most potentially successful releases of the 2020 was delayed in its release, causing the Wanda Film Holding Company to decline 21% over the four day trading week. As time has gone on, the narrative of delayed releases has only proved more problematic, especially for Hollywood films hoping to make it big in China.

I’d like to focus particularly on Sonic the Hedgehog and the upcoming Mulan in this analysis, as I feel they are the movies most likely to be affected and the two that clearly illustrate the detrimental nature of Coronavirus’ damage to Chinese cinema-going. With Sonic, it’s an obvious case of video game movie that was expected to do solid business in the USA but boom overseas. Indeed, this was the case with the likes of Warcraft in 2016. It bombed in America, grossing less than $50 million despite a $160 million budget (baffling considering the awful special effects) but then did boffo business in China, earning more than the US performance in its opening weekend and finishing the run with $225 million. This arguably began a pattern of high video game movie success in the country, as others like Detective Pikachu have done well (not quite like Warcraft) and increased in profit potential.

Sonic’s release date in China has not yet been set, meaning that Paramount can’t necessarily hope for a repeat of these Video game successes. They can breathe a slight sigh of relief due to the film’s over-performance in the US (domestic total nearing $100 million) but China’s contribution would have made that total even sweeter. Sonic will make its money but this example simply shows how China can turn an already good performance into a great one.

Mulan is a slightly different case as it arguably is a film geared directly to China. It’s based on a Chinese folk legend and Disney have capitalised on its potential appeal there by casting Chinese actors, notably Yifei Liu in the title role and heavyweight cast members Donnie Yen and Li Gong. With US opening weekend tracking currently at $40-60 million (below all of the other Disney live action remakes), China would theoretically be the difference between the film breaking even and being a huge success. Disney still plans on releasing the film globally at the original scheduled date, even though there is no approved release in China. If left too long, loss of interest and potential piracy could diminish box office returns.

It’s clear that the financial fates of many big hitting movies lie in China’s hands, and with the deadly Coronavirus grinding the industry to a halt, many of these films are left out in the cold.

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