A Hollywood blockbuster used to live and die by its domestic takings. But now that China is predicted to soon surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest cinema-going nation, the homegrown box office figures are no longer as paramount to a big budget affair’s success. Indeed, thanks to a rapid expansion of screens (22 are being added every day), an average ticket price three dollars cheaper than the U.S., and a lack of an official certification system (meaning all films are edited to be suitable for all ages), China even set a new record for the highest one-week gross in a single territory over the 2016 Chinese New Year period.
This astonishing upward trend has had a profound effect on the American film industry, with a whole host of movies now earning more in the Far East than they do back home. For some, this overseas success is simply the icing on the cake, but to other less well-received releases, it is an absolute godsend. From money-spinning franchises to costly 'flops,’ here’s a look at 15 films which boosted their coffers in the land of the dragon.
15 Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim had the highest first-week opening of any film by director Guillermo del Toro, surpassing Hellboy II: The Golden Army by $1.3m, while its 50% 3D ticket share is second only to Gravity in the all-time records. However, by falling behind Despicable Me 2’s second week and Grown Ups 2 -- a critically-mauled sequel which even by Adam Sandler’s low standards set a new benchmark for laziness -- the sci-fi monster flick’s $37.2 first week takings were still viewed as a colossal disappointment.
The 2013 release eventually crawled to a take of $101.8m in North America, a figure well below its whopping $190m budget, but thankfully for studio executives, China proved to be far more receptive. The film’s Hong Kong setting and Chinese characters – even if they were killed off early on – no doubt played their part in reeling in audiences, resulting in a $111.9m take - the sixth-highest for an American film in the country’s history. China not only helped to double the film’s box office total, it is widely credited with convincing Warner Bros. to take a punt on a sequel.
14 Transformers: Age of Extinction
Co-produced by two Chinese companies (Jiaflix Enterprises, China Movie Channel), the fourth installment of Michael Bay’s loud and proud Transformers franchise also benefited from its use of various Hong Kong landmarks, as well as China’s long-running affinity with the robotic brand and various product placements edited into the movie specifically for Chinese audiences. Age of Extinction subsequently, if only briefly, became China’s highest-grossing U.S. movie with an impressive $320m, becoming the first such film in the country to break the $300m barrier.
Of course, unlike Pacific Rim, the Mark Wahlberg-starring entry didn’t particularly need such a commercial lifeline. Its $245m North American take may have been dwarfed by China’s, and indeed the three previous films in the Transformers series. But it was still enough to make it the fifth-highest grossing movie in the U.S. in 2014, while its $1.1 billion worldwide gross ensured it recouped its $210m budget nearly five times over.
13 Furious 7
The seventh chapter of the increasingly popular and increasingly ridiculous Fast and Furious franchise couldn’t stop breaking records in China when it hit screens there in 2015. After setting an all-time greatest midnight run with $8.05 million, the Justin Lin-directed affair went on to achieve the highest opening day figure ($68.8 million), the highest first-day IMAX gross ($5 million) and the highest opening week ($245.9m). By its 15th day of release, Furious 7 had overtaken the North American gross, and with an eventual figure of $390.9 million, became the most successful movie, be it homegrown or international, in Chinese box-office history.
Of course, like Age of Extinction, the input of a Chinese film group was no doubt instrumental to its colossal overseas success. But unlike most of the films on this list, Furious 7 also outperformed expectations in home territory too. After achieving the biggest Easter opening, the biggest Fast and Furious opening and Universal’s highest late-night run, the movie eventually totalled $353m to become the 31st highest-grossing film in the U.S. -- of all time.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Duncan Jones’ big screen adaptation of the Warcraft strategy game needed to earn $400m in ticket sales across the globe in order to just break even. Universal executives, therefore, probably needed a lie down when following disastrous reviews, news emerged that the film had only taken $24.2 million in its first week to land in second place behind The Conjuring 2. Worse was to follow when the film earned just $7.2 million in its second week, and by the time Warcraft had prematurely finished its U.S. run, its gross stood at a hugely disappointing $46.7 million.
However, once again China came to the rescue. Capitalizing on the huge popularity of the game in the country, the film received the widest Chinese release ever, a strategy which paid off when it earned $46m on its opening day (including a record-breaking $6m in IMAX), $156m in its first five days to achieve the highest opening weekend of all time, and an overall figure of $221m – an astonishing five times more than its U.S. run.
Whether or not Universal will ultimately deem the film a success or failure remains to be seen; despite the horrendous domestic showing, the film did surpass The Hollywood Reporter's projected bottom line by over $30m when all was said and done.
11 Terminator: Genysis
However, Warcraft wasn’t the first film to net over $100m in China without doing the same in the U.S. That feat went to Terminator: Genysis, the 2015 fifth chapter of the man vs. machine franchise which not only fell well behind Jurassic World and Inside Out in its opening week, but also finished its North American run with an underwhelming figure of $89.8m on a budget of $155m.
But although homegrown audiences appeared to have lost their enthusiasm for Arnie’s most iconic character, Chinese viewers couldn’t get enough. Admittedly, its overall $112.8m gross may well have been boosted by the fact that Genysis was the first Hollywood blockbuster to be released there since the blackout period which saw non-Chinese movies banned from general release. But throw in the country’s appetite for all things robotic and Schwarzenegger’s continued popularity there, and the movie was perhaps always going to be a surefire hit.
10 The Expendables 3
Another Arnie film also got a helping hand from Chinese fans a year earlier when they attended the third installment of The Expendables in droves. Despite adding the likes of Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes and Mel Gibson to its all-star line-up, the film underperformed at the North American box-office, raking in just $39.3m, compared to the $103m for the 2010 original and $85m for the 2012 sequel.
The decision to tone down the series’ violence in order to acquire a PG-13 rating, leading to poor word of mouth from those more bloodthirsty fans, was given most of the blame. But ironically, the same decision reaped its rewards in the Far East. Indeed, with China editing every Hollywood release for family consumption, audiences there wouldn’t have noticed any difference between The Expendables 3 and its predecessors, resulting in a $33.7m chart-topping opening weekend and a much healthier total figure of $72.9m.
9 Escape Plan
Spotting a pattern here? Yes, if anything exemplifies China’s devotion to the one and only Arnold Schwarzenegger it’s the fact that a film as utterly derivative as Escape Plan ended up in their Top 30 highest-grossing movies of 2013. The first film to pair the Austrian Oak and fellow ’80s action hero Sylvester Stallone may have failed to make the most of its dream team, but it still pulled in a mighty $40m at the Chinese box office.
That’s nearly $15m more than the film managed on its home turf, finishing behind Gravity, Captain Phillips and the equally maligned remake of Carrie to finish fourth in its opening week. Escape Plan also proved to be far more successful across Europe and the rest of Asia, resulting in an overall gross of $137.3m, nearly triple its $50m budget. You should, therefore, expect to see plenty more Expendables co-stars pairing off in the future.
8 The Transporter Refueled
We’ve already seen how two Jason Statham films received a major boost from Chinese cinemagoers, but a reboot of the series that launched him to fame also benefited from the exact same market. Of course, a Statham-less Transporter was always going to be a bit of a hard sell, and despite Ed Skrein’s best efforts, this fourth entry looked to have simply been one too many when it took just $7.4m in its opening weekend, finishing fourth in the North American box office chart.
And even more so when its overall $16m figure fell far short of both its predecessor’s $31.7m and the $25.3m had grossed 13 years previously. But with a relatively modest budget of $25m, The Transporter Refueled still managed to net a tidy profit thanks to its Chinese box office taking of $18.3m, suggesting that Frank Martin, in whichever form, may fight to see another day.
7 Now You See Me 2
But it’s not just the full-throttle sci-fi and action films which are starting to see an upswing in bums in seats across the other side of the globe. Magic heist caper Now You See Me 2 achieved a mighty opening day of $14.8m in China, a record for its Lionsgate studio and a whopping 679% up from the original’s. A month later and the sequel had amassed a further $78m, making it one of the Top 20 films of 2016 for the country.
In comparison, despite a fairly respectable opening weekend of $22.3m, the North American release of Now You See Me 2 only totaled half of the $117.7m that its predecessor had earned three years previously. But thanks to its worldwide performance, the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Mark Ruffalo are now being tipped to reprise their roles for an unlikely third wave of sleight-of-hand trickery.
6 Kung Fu Panda 3
Adhering to the law of diminishing returns, Kung Fu Panda 3 raked in a lesser, if still considerably impressive, North American figure of $143.5m upon its 2016 release, compared to the $215.4m of the 2008 original and the $165.2m of its 2011 sequel. Conversely, the Chinese box office stats went in the opposite direction, with the third’s $154.3m figure dwarfing those of the first ($26m) and second ($92.2m) chapters of the animated franchise.
Kung Fu Panda 3 not only took over $10m more in China than in the U.S., it had the biggest opening of the year, the biggest opening weekend for an animated feature, and for a short period before Zootopia, was the highest-grossing cartoon of all time. Incredibly, box office analysts felt that the Chinese-American production would have done even better had it not been scheduled for release just a week before the Lunar New Year.
5 Gods of Egypt
Hercules, The Legend of Hercules, Pompeii – the epic sword and sandals fantasy subgenre hasn’t had a particularly enjoyable time at the U.S. box office as of late, so it should have been little surprise when Alex Proyas’ ancient Egypt blockbuster flattered to deceive with a $14.1m opening weekend in the traditionally quietest part of the box office calendar. The fact that it had been battling a whitewashing controversy for months didn't help matters, but neither did the fact that it went up against a worldwide phenomenom like Deadpool. Despite being released in 2D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D, Gods of Egypt struggled to attract many more viewers, finishing its run with a disappointing $31.2m against a budget of $140m.
The film, which sees Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Brendon Thwaites attempting to save the world from Gerard Butler’s dastardly god of darkness, didn’t exactly set the rest of the world on fire either. But thanks to a far more respectable $35.6m gross in China, Gods of Egypt eventually managed to just claw back its budget, with an overall worldwide total of $142.2m. But once marketing costs are factored in, this one was a major financial disappointment.
4 The Last Witch Hunter
From one of the flops of 2016 to one of the flops of 2015, The Last Witch Hunter failed to recover from the critical drubbing it received early on (its Rotten Tomatoes score currently stands at 16%), grossing just $10.8m on its opening weekend – well below its projected $13m – and just $27.4m in total against a budget of $90m. There was even worse news for its star Vin Diesel, as the only film of his career to take in any less was 2007’s virtually indecipherable Babylon A.D.
But the Middle Ages fantasy eventually surpassed its production budget thanks to a $113m international gross – nearly a quarter of which appeared courtesy of China’s apparent appetite for big screen destruction. Furthermore, in the closest U.S.-China ratio on the list, The Last Witch Hunter took exactly $27,404,245 during its Chinese run, just a little over $36,585 more than North America's.
3 Point Break
Widely considered as one of the early ’90s ultimate guilty pleasures, the original Point Break starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves was only kept off the top of the North American box office chart by the biggest film of the year, Terminator: Judgement Day 2. The film eventually grossed $43.2m domestically and $83.5m, figures which when adjusted for inflation would make the commercial performance of its unnecessary 2015 remake appear even more unflattering.
Indeed, Point Break Mark II placed a lowly eighth in the U.S. Top 10 on its opening weekend, and on a $105m budget, achieved a total domestic gross of just $28.8m, a far cry from its all-conquering predecessor. However, perhaps buoyed by the fact it was an American-German-Chinese production, the movie fared much better in China, grossing $39.4m during a run in which it achieved the second lowest weekend drop of any 2015 film in the country.
2 Brick Mansions
Renowned for being the last film Paul Walker completed before his tragic death, Brick Mansions saw French maverick Luc Besson rewrite his 2004 cult hit District 13 for an American audience with inevitably mixed results. Indeed, the film's rather unfortunate morbid curiosity wasn't enough to draw much of its intended market into cinemas, and it opened with a disappointing $9.6m on its way to an unremarkable North American total of $20.4m.
The poorly reviewed action thriller also started off fairly slowly in China as well, grossing a similarly modest $7.71m in its opening weekend. But after cinemas opted to more than double its screen count, Brick Mansions achieved the rare feat of climbing from fifth position to the runner-up slot in its second week with a $13.5m gross. The film went on to reach a much more creditable figure of $29.8m, nearly 50% more than its North American run achieved.
1 Need for Speed
Despite the lure of a post-Breaking Bad Aaron Paul, Need for Speed crashed and burned at the North American box office in 2014. Indeed, things didn’t get off to a great start when it finished behind Mr. Peabody and Sherman and 300: Rise of an Empire (the latter in its second week) with a middling gross of $17.8m on its opening weekend. Poor reviews and word of mouth meant it then spluttered towards a disappointing overall total of $43.6m on a budget of $66m.
But while the film was largely viewed as yet another misguided video game adaptation in the U.S., Chinese audiences lapped it up, resulting in a higher opening weekend gross ($21.1m) and a higher overall total ($66m). The country’s positive response has sparked rumors that China Movie Channel Program Center, 1905 Pictures and Jiaflix Enterprises have been in talks with Electronic Arts to produce a sequel filmed in China with a largely Chinese cast.
Will China fully surpass the U.S. at the box office in the next few years? Let us know what you think in the comments.