Pacific Rim Uprising tried to game the box office by betting on China - and failed miserably. Back in 2013, Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim was a high-concept sci-fi gamble. Essentially a live-action anime, the film about giant robots fighting colossal beasts from under the sea had a budget in the range of $200 million, and only barely squeaked past $100 million at the domestic box office. Worldwide, the special effects extravaganza managed to rake in a solid total of $411 million. That surely wasn't enough for the film to turn any sort of profit at the box office, but it was enough to save face for Warner Brothers and studio Legendary.
In China, the Kaiju vs Jaegers adventure made a solid $111 million, making headlines as one of the first big-budget Hollywood blockbusters to earn more cash at the Chinese box office than that of the United States. Fast-forward to 2016, in which Legendary was purchased by the Chinese Wanda Group, a multinational conglomerate with stakes in global cinema, including AMC theaters. This led to discussion of a Pacific Rim sequel being produced with the aim of targeting Chinese moviegoers, rather than Western viewers.
For the sequel, original director Guillermo Del Toro dropped out to pursue other projects like The Shape of Water. Steven S. DeKnight, best known for his work on TV shows like Spartacus and Daredevil, stepped in to direct, and John Boyega, hot off his charismatic turn as Finn in Disney's new wave of Star Wars movies, was brought in play the lead, alongside rising star Scott Eastwood.
All eyes were on Pacific Rim Uprising. It was a box office gamble; a sequel to a middling performer with cult status but questionable mainstream appeal. While still ostensibly a Hollywood film, all signs point to Uprising as a film produced for Chinese viewers before being sold to Western audiences, rather than the other way around. It was an experiment, but did it pay off?
Pacific Rim in America
Expectations were not particularly high for Uprising in the United States. As mentioned earlier, the original film was not a huge hit, so projections were modest leading up to the sequel's release. Still, Legendary placed John Boyega front and center in most of the marketing, and since Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the highest-grossing film of all time in the States, there was still a chance that the film could break out due to Boyega's understated star power, to say nothing of the feel-good premise of robots fighting monsters.
Alas, Uprising played exactly as box office analysts had feared, if not a bit worse. Its $28 million opening haul was enough to unseat Black Panther from the number one spot after the breakout Marvel hit enjoyed an astounding five weeks atop the charts, but it was a narrow victory. The following weekend saw Pacific Rim fall 62% to $13.5 million, fifth place finish, while Black Panther only dropped one chart spot, taking third place with nearly $17.5 million in its seventh weekend. Subsequent frames found Pacific Rim nearly dropping out the conversation entirely, and it fell like a rock in the box office rankings. For the weekend of April 20, its fifth weekend in release, Uprising grossed barely half a million dollars, and sat near the bottom of the charts in 19th place.
As of this writing, the total domestic haul of Pacific Rim Uprising sits at $58.7 million, $43 million less than the original made five years ago. The budget for the SFX-heavy sequel was a reported $150 million, significantly less than the original's price tag of $190 million, and the film was always meant to be a more global play, but Universal and Legendary had to be hoping for a better turnout than what the film ultimately delivered. At this point, Uprising would have to be a remarkable performer in China to justify its high production costs and offset its poor domestic performance. So, did China deliver the goods?
The Current State of Hollywood in China
Despite earning over $411 million worldwide, it's highly unlikely that the original Pacific Rim was a profitable production in terms of box office revenue. It's been well-documented that Hollywood studios take home significantly less money from Chinese ticket sales than they do from elsewhere in the world. In the United States, the studios earn roughly 50% of a film's box office gross. Due to taxes and other factors, that number shrinks to 40% in most overseas markets. In China, studios only bring home 25% of a film's gross. Basically, the raw numbers, of how much money a movie makes, only tells part of the story. Equally important is knowing which countries are bringing in those box office dollars.
Studios agreed to this unenviable agreement with faith that the Chinese box office would grow and continue to grow, far surpassing the United States while eagerly devouring Hollywood movies with a ravenous appetite for larger-than-life heroes and gun fights. Unfortunately, China's box office hunger has grown significantly more slowly than expected, and their tastes are leaning more towards local Chinese productions than Hollywood imports. Not to mention, Hollywood movies are consistently pulled from Chinese theaters after just a few weeks, regardless of how well they're performing. Basically, the deck is stacked against Hollywood movies, with rare exceptions like Furious 7 and its sequel, Fate of the Furious... Both of which were co-produced by China Film.
As a result, many Chinese investors, such as China Film and Alibaba Pictures, are limiting their involvement with Hollywood and investing more heavily in Chinese films. However, Pacific Rim Uprising still moved forward as something of a relic from that brief flash-in-the-pan moment when China was on its way to being the "promised land" for Hollywood films. China's box office is still important, but, in 2018, it's not nearly as vital as Hollywood had predicted it would be by now.