In 2005, there were roughly 4,425 movie screens in China. That number was representative of a country and culture that had produced some truly great films over the years - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film in 2000 - but was never really thought of as a box office powerhouse. However, a series of rules and cultural changes helped the Chinese theater business boom almost overnight. There are currently roughly 41,000 movie screens in China, and over 1.3 billion movie tickets were sold in the country in 2016. China is on pace to become the most significant box office force in the world.
However, the current culture of cinema in China sometimes leads to some...unusual box office hits. Because of China’s still-stringent rules on both the content of films allowed to screen in the country as well as the number of films screened there, there's a growing list of movies that bombed in America and other parts of the world that went on to become huge hits in China. While many movies that are popular in Western markets also so happen to be popular in China, other box office hits may leave you with a shocked look on your face.
These are 15 Movies You Had No Idea Were REALLY Popular In China.
16 Honorable Mentions: Transformers/The Fast and the Furious
These film franchises are listed as honorable mentions for the simple reason that many of you may be aware that they're huge in China and many other places in the world as well. However, you might not know just how popular these franchises are in China. For instance, did you know that two of the top five grossing movies in Chinese film history are Fast and the Furious films? Did you know that Fate of the Furious grossed over $350 million in China alone? The film series could only release in China and still be box office sensations.
Transformers, meanwhile, continues to grow in popularity in China. Two Transformers films appear on the list of the top-10 grossing movies in the country's history. Transformers: The Last Knight’s opening weekend in China even accounted for over 63% of the film’s international opening gross. While the property wasn’t necessarily a big deal in China prior to the debut of these films, giant fighting robots is just one of those universally entertaining things, it seems.
15 Robocop 3D
While some people think of RoboCop as just another ‘80s action movie, many more people know that it's actually an incredibly intelligent film. The movie’s musings on topics such as consumerism and industrial power are just as relevant as RoboCop’s portrayal of Detroit as a metropolis in decline. As such, Western audiences were either hostile or indifferent to the idea of a RoboCop remake, and the 2014 film’s box office returns in those markets reflect that lack of enthusiasm.
However, RoboCop 3D was a tremendous success in China. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, they didn’t release the RoboCop remake in 3D” that’s because they didn’t release it in 3D in your market. Sony believed that China’s obsession with 3D films would help bolster the appeal of RoboCop in that country, and they were absolutely right. RoboCop made $21 million in China over the course of three days. For perspective, RoboCop only made $51 million in the United States over the course of three weekends.
14 Point Break (2015)
To be entirely fair, 1991’s Point Break isn’t a good movie. It was, however, an oddly entertaining film that so happened to star several big names and feature plenty of “so bad, they’re good” elements that elevated its “surfers are also bank robbers” plot to cult classic status. Still, Point Break was entirely a product of its time, and the idea of a remake didn’t really ignite the imagination of global audiences.
China, however, was all-in on 2015’s Point Break. Mind you, it certainly didn’t hurt that the movie opened there before it debuted in America - which was something of an unprecedented occurrence for such a movie - but your guess about why the movie is so popular in China outside of that fact is about as good as ours. Feet to the fire, we’d chalk this one up to the scarcity of international films available in Chinese theaters at the time of Point Break’s release as well as the film’s generic, thus easily translatable, plot and sequences.
13 Men in Black 3
That part of your brain that allows you to forget that there was a third Men in Black movie is likely the same part of your brain that prevents you from doing something like resting your hand on a hot stove. Okay, so the movie isn’t that bad - Men in Black 2 is much worse - but the third film in the Men in Black series is a largely forgettable blockbuster.
When Men in Black 3 debuted in China, the big story was that the Chinese government had decided to cut out several scenes in the movie that depicted Chinese villains. This debate over censorship really distracted everyone from the fact that Men in Black 3 was a tremendous box office success in the country. The film grossed about $75 million in China during its theatrical run, a number that can likely be attributed to the movie’s 3D effects and star power.
12 Skiptrace (A Jackie Chan/Johnny Knoxville Action Film)
Technically, Skiptrace was made available in countries outside of China, but you’re forgiven if this is the first you’ve heard of it. This 2016 action film stars the unlikely duo of Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville as a cop and a criminal who must work together to bring down the usual criminals. It’s your standard buddy cop fare, with Jackie Chan as the capable law enforcement officer and Johnny Knoxville as the bumbling American with criminal knowledge. It’s fairly standard stuff.
It’s not hard to see why Skiptrace is so popular in China once you dive into the film’s specifics. It retains the looks and feel of an American blockbuster, but features a heavy influx of Chinese culture and portrays Jackie Chan as the ultimate Chinese action hero. Skiptrace’s play on the Rush Hour set-up proved to be a bonafide box office blockbuster in China, snagging $60 million in its opening weekend there alone.
11 The Mummy
The Mummy’s debut in Western markets surely left Universal pictures wishing that they too had the ability to resurrect the dead. The Mummy got off to a rough start when someone accidentally released that teaser trailer that didn’t include the film’s final audio, but it turns out that that viral video is about as entertaining as the movie gets. The first official film in the Dark Universe series was panned for its generic action, emotionless performances, and general lack of personality. It was pulled from almost 900 theaters in its third week and was expected to be a massive box office bomb.
However, the film was rescued from the deepest pits of financial loss due to the contributions of the Chinese markets. The movie grossed roughly $82 million in China in just ten days. That incredible success is attributed to the movie’s 3D effects (noticing a trend here?), classic adventure themes, and the presence of Tom Cruise. In fact, China is largely responsible for making The Mummy Tom Cruise’s biggest global debut.
Ant-Man's escape from development hell is almost more infamous than the movie itself. Edgar Wright was initially supposed to direct Ant-Man, but the beloved director pulled out of the film following “creative differences.” Given that high-profile directors leaving movies is never a good sign - especially movies based on relatively obscure comic book characters - many feared the worst when Ant-Man debuted in 2015. While Ant-Man wasn’t nearly as successful as other Marvel movies, it was a pretty good overall film that did respectable box office numbers in the West.
China, however, absolutely loved it. What’s particularly surprising about Ant-Man’s success in China is that comedy movies - or movies with heavy comedic elements - typically struggle there, due to the fact that many of the jokes just don’t translate. Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance, bombed in China. However, something about Ant-Man’s combination of humor and special effects battles resonated with Chinese filmgoers, leading to the film racking up over $100 million in the market when all was said and done. In fact, China’s love for the film is widely credited with helping to ensure the production of an Ant-Man sequel.
9 San Andreas
If ever humanity got the urge to put a film that perfectly captures what a standard blockbuster action movie of this era looks like into a time capsule for future generations to find, San Andreas might be a pretty good candidate for that honor. Is San Andreas a bad film? Not necessarily, but there’s also nothing about it that really stands out aside from the star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Apparently, that star power really flexes its muscles in China. The Rock’s movies tend to do well in China, but San Andreas was an especially big hit in that market. In fact, San Andreas may have grossed more in its first week in China than it did during its debut week in the U.S. (the numbers are up for debate). The point is that CG-fueled action spectacles are always in high demand in China, and San Andreas proved to hit all the notes that market loves to hear.
8 Need for Speed
Close your eyes, turn off your brain, and you can picture the meeting that led to the production of Need for Speed. One executive looked at the success of Fast and the Furious film franchise, one executive looked at the success of the Need for Speed game franchise, one was watching Breaking Bad on their smartphone, and BAM! - you’ve got a car movie starring Aaron Paul. Need for Speed failed to really capture the attention of Western audiences that didn’t latch onto any of its “established” successful elements.
You can probably guess that Need for Speed was a success in China - what with the headline and all - but the extent of the film’s success in that market is pretty astounding. Need for Speed earned over $21 million during its opening weekend in China and $66.2 million overall. Both of those numbers are higher than their U.S. equivalents. Of course, the success of the Fast and the Furious movies in China probably had quite a bit to do with Need for Speed’s warm welcome.
7 The Last Witch Hunter
The story of how The Last Witch Hunter came to be is too nerdy to not be lovable. Apparently, writer Corey Goodman found himself fascinated by Vin Diesel’s stories of playing a witch hunter in Dungeons and Dragons. Goodman felt that such a character would make for a great star of an action movie, so he helped write said action movie. The Last Witch Hunter proved to be a flop in North America, as it failed to find an audience among D&D players or casual filmgoers.
This is another instance of a movie that's success in China can partially be traced back to the success of The Fast and the Furious franchise. Those films made Diesel a big star in the country, and probably ensured that The Last Witch Hunter’s Chinese box office figures (which actually nudged out its domestic tally) helped save the film. It also probably didn’t hurt that the movie’s supernatural elements are something of a rarity in China.
6 Kung Fu Panda 3
2008’s Kung Fu Panda surprised quite a few people with its surprisingly clever writing and all-around enjoyable nature. As the series wore on, however, it proved to succumb to the same traps that many comedy franchises fall prey to. Namely, it began to rely on a series of increasingly familiar jokes. Still, even Kung Fu Panda 3 proved to be a mostly fun film that fans of the series - or anyone looking for a family friendly movie - could watch and not feel too bad about.
The first thing you need to understand about Kung Fu Panda 3 is that it was specifically tailored to appeal to Chinese audiences. By that, we mean that 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks reworked the character animations and lip-synching to match the film’s Chinese audio track. That, combined with Kung Fu Panda 3’s early debut in China and the film’s general themes, helped the movie overcome hurdles that other animated films trying to succeed in China had encountered. It ended up grossing over $150 million in the Chinese market.
“They’re making a movie about Battleship?” said a confused legion of film fans who couldn’t quite comprehend how of a board game about colored pegs, grid placements, and enraged siblings was going to translate into a feature-length film. As it turns out, the Battleship name was used for little more than the purposes of generating some name recognition hype for what otherwise amounted to a fairly standard sci-fi story.
To help understand why Battleship made over $48 million during its run in China, you first need to know that Pacific Rim made a whopping $111 million in that same country. In fact, some have gone so far as to suggest that the strange plot of the Battleship movie was hastily engineered in an attempt to capitalize on the success of Pacific Rim in foreign markets. Now, we’d never suggest that a film studio would do such a thing, but we will say that they absolutely would and probably did.
4 Now You See Me 2
Say what you will about 2013’s Now You See Me, but a movie about a group of magicians who band together to commit a heist has the potential to be great campy fun. In fact, the movie’s biggest failing is that it didn’t go all-in on the campy aspects of the premise and too often played out like a low-rent version of Ocean’s 11. Now You See Me 2, meanwhile, failed to replicate much of the fun of the original movie. In fact, you probably forgot that the sequel even existed until just this moment.
To be perfectly honest, we’re not entirely sure we can explain why this movie is as popular as it is in China. Granted, the film’s star power and visual effect trickery certainly help, but Now You See Me 2’s record breaking China debut defies conventional box-office wisdom. The movie made almost $100 million in just three weeks in China. In fact, Lionsgate is reportedly set to make a Chinese spin-off of the Now You See Me series.
3 Bait 3D
China loves American blockbusters, but don’t think that China is only open to foreign films from the United States. In fact, some believe that the Australian film scene could undergo a box office boom due largely to how well Australian films tend to do in China. Actually, that optimism can almost entirely be traced back to just how successful Bait 3D was in China.
Bait 3D is a killer shark movie roughly on par with the animal-based disaster movies the SyFy Channel produces. It was expected to be a pure financial disaster until it debuted in China and grossed over $20 million. They may not sound like much, but you have to understand that there was no precedent for an Australian film to make that much money in China, especially a low-budget movie like Bait 3D. The film’s creator chalks the film’s box office success in China up to the fact that movies like Jaws hadn’t been released in China.
2 Escape Plan
At one point, Escape Plan might have been a kind of dream film. If someone had released an action film starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in, say, 1989, then it very well might have been a record breaking hit. However, Escape Plan didn’t come out in 1989; it came out in 2013. By then, Escape Plan’s paper thin prison break story was just a little too dull to be bolstered by its star power.
However, that same star power carried a lot more weight in China. Much like Jaws, a lot of the movies that made Stallone and Schwarzenegger famous in America and elsewhere were not released in China. As such, both men were still thought of as almost mythological figures in that country. As such, the fact that they were in a movie together was all the justification many Chinese film fans needed to rush to see Escape Plan. Escape Plan was so popular in China, in fact, that Escape Plan 2 is being co-produced by a Chinese company.
1 A Dog’s Purpose
If you know about A Dog’s Purpose, you probably know about it as the movie made infamous over some leaked behind the scenes footage that reportedly showcased one of the dogs used for the film being submerged in water against their will. There were some arguments regarding the validity of the footage, but the damage had been done. A Dog’s Purpose wasn’t expected to be a box office sensation in the first place, and that leaked footage helped ensure that the film grossed a paltry $64 million in the United States.
However, the footage in question didn’t permeate China quite as thoroughly as it did elsewhere, meaning that A Dog’s Purpose retained its wholesome image in the eyes of many of the nation's viewers. That, combined with factors such as a growing amount of dog owners in China, helped A Dog’s Purpose perform far above all expectations in China. A Dog’s Purpose beat movies like Lego Batman and Logan at the box office in consecutive weekends. It’s because of the film’s success in China (where it racked up over $88 million) that A Dog’s Purpose is getting a sequel.
What other films have been surprisingly embraced by China's moviegoing population? Let us know in the comments.