The Jackie Chan comedy “Kung Fu Yoga” topped a bountiful box-office weekend in China that largely shrugged off back-to-work blues after the long Chinese New Year holiday – a festive period that saw Tsui Hark and Stephen Chow’s “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back” emerge as the biggest winner.
The holiday period officially ended last Thursday, and many businesses were supposed to reopen Friday. But, inevitably, many people took the weekend as additional vacation or travel days. Cinemas were the big beneficiaries, with daily attendance more than 50% higher than a typical non-holiday weekend.
For the Friday-Sunday weekend, “Yoga” claimed $49.9 million from some 70,000 screenings per day. “Journey to the West” earned $34.5 million from only slightly fewer screenings, according to data from Ent Group. That included $3 million from 389 IMAX screens, bringing its IMAX total to $15.9 million. (The film also earned $1.2 million from 400 venues in Sony Pictures Releasing International’s seven overseas territories.)
Han Han’s drama “Duckweed” climbed the rankings to No. 3 with a strong $29.9 million from some 45,000 screenings per day. The second India-themed comedy, “Buddies in India,” earned $12.9 million, narrowly ahead of franchise cartoon “Boonie Bears: Endangered World,” which grossed $12.4 million.
Those five had all been released Jan. 28, the first official day of the holiday period. The quintet dominated theaters throughout the nine-day period, untroubled by a smattering of small new releases in the second week.
After a fast start – it broke the record for the largest single day in Chinese box office history – “Journey” had accumulated $182 million from nine days. “Kung Fu Yoga,” in second place, had $146 million. “Buddies” reached $89 million, “Duckweed” $70.5 million and “Boonie Bears” $48 million.
Although Chinese media hailed the holiday box office bonanza as a return to form for the Chinese theatrical business and for Chinese-language films, there are multiple reasons to question that analysis.
First, while the six-day official holiday period (Jan. 28-Feb. 2) saw a 13% growth in ticket sales, according to government reports, the number of cinemas in operation has increased by some 30% since 2016. Per screen, ticket sales remain persistently down.
Second, while January 2017 saw a 25% increase in theatrical business compared to January 2016, last year the Chinese New Year holiday period fell entirely within February. This year a steep comparative drop should be expected for February.
Furthermore, China’s industry regulators have begun presenting box office data differently. From the first day of the lunar new year (Jan. 28), reported grosses were required to include online booking fees. These are typically between RMB3-5 ($0.44-0.72) per ticket. Given that more than 70% of movie tickets in China are now sold online, the inclusion of the booking fees instantly swelled the overall box office numbers by about RMB4 ($0.58) per ticket, or more than 10%.
The idea behind the change is to ensure greater clarity of reporting; after all, these are the prices paid by the consumer. But the change means that making comparisons with past performances, whose numbers do not include the booking fees, much harder. And it is the gross revenues measured in the old way that are still to be used for calculating the revenue shares payable to overseas rights holders in the case of imported films.
Another reason for caution is that the Chinese New Year period was all about local films. A crop of new releases, including Hollywood titles “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” and the Oscar-fancied “La La Land” will soon grab screens from the incumbents and compete for Valentine’s Day audiences.
So, while “Journey to the West” scored an opening-day record, its cumulative earnings are still currently outside the all-time top 10. The film stands little chance of getting near the RMB3.39 billion ($491 million) performance, excluding booking fees, of last year’s blockbuster hit “The Mermaid.”