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Can China Propel ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ to Blockbuster Status?

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” has been cruising along at the box office, but in order to turn a profit, it will need to smash records when it debuts in China on Friday.

The high-octane standalone — starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham as frenemies with dueling pecs — has already surpassed the $400 million mark globally before touching down in the Middle Kingdom, racking up $135 million in North America and $304 million overseas. Still, with a massive $200 million production budget and promotional and distribution costs above $125 million, sources estimate “Hobbs & Shaw” will need to earn $600 million to get in the black. But studios need their movies to do more than just break even, of course, particularly if they want to make more sequels and spinoffs (and believe us, they most assuredly want both). The prior two “Fast & Furious” entries broke the $1 billion barrier, so there’s a rarefied definition of what constitutes success for “Hobbs and Shaw.”

It’s promising that Universal’s tributes to fast cars and bulging muscles have been hugely popular in China, where anticipation for the newest spinoff is sky-high. Chinese moviegoers also love the Rock, and helped salvage his most recent movies, “Skyscraper” and “Rampage.”

The last two “Furious” installments made more money in China than in the U.S. “The Fate of the Furious” took in a whopping $393 million in the Middle Kingdom in 2017, compared to $226 million domestically, while 2015’s “Furious 7” brought in $391 million in China, slightly ahead of its $353 million haul in North America. “Fate” is the ninth-highest grossing film in Chinese history, and is second to only “Avengers: Endgame” as the most successful foreign title ever in the territory. “Furious 7” ranks as the country’s 12th-biggest grosser and its third most successful Western film.

“‘Fast and Furious’ is definitely a very strong IP among young people here,” a Beijing-based cinema chain operator told Variety. “A lot of people have already been booking tickets in advance, so I think it’s going to do well here.”

Nearly 600,000 users on the popular Maoyan ticketing platform have indicated that they’re looking forward to the film. The group skews slightly male and primarily consists of ticket buyers in their 20s, with 41% of respondents hailing from China’s second-tier cities.

Despite the enthusiasm, advanced ticket sales are pacing behind those for the previous installments. “The Fate of the Furious” amassed a notable $43 million in pre-sales, a record at the time. “Hobbs & Shaw” has so far sold only $7.56 million (RMB53.3 million) in pre-sales as of Wednesday afternoon, two days before its big debut.

It ought to help that “Hobbs & Shaw” won’t have much competition and is opening amid a few holdovers, none of which look to be serious rivals. The closest contender will be local animated movie “Nezha,” which continues to lead the daily box office and has grossed a whopping $599 million after more than a month in release.

Despite a recent slowdown, China’s box office has been expanding for most of the past 15 years, with 15,250 new screens built across the country since “The Fate of the Furious” hit theaters. But viewers’ tastes are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and the local industry in China has begun to meet audiences’ appetites for big-budget spectacle in a way that once only Hollywood was able to satisfy.

The spinoff also comes at a complicated political moment when strong Chinese nationalist sentiment is liable to spill over into the entertainment space.

China’s propaganda apparatus has kicked into overdrive as a key political anniversary for the ruling Communist party approaches in October. Tensions with the U.S. are on the rise with the ongoing trade war, and recent official rhetoric seeking to portray massive anti-government protests in Hong Kong as a product of foreign “meddling” has raised hackles against the the West. The climate has led some to take a political stance on the upcoming American film.

“The U.S. and U.K. don’t buy Chinese movie tickets, but there are still so many Chinese traitors who still buy theirs. Don’t be a traitor — support domestic movies, boycott U.S., British, Japanese and Korean films and goods, and don’t forget national humiliation,” one fired-up Maoyan commenter wrote, before accusing the U.S. of interference in the Hong Kong demonstrations. The reference to national humiliation echoes the popular state-backed narrative that China was victimized by a “century of humiliation” under foreign and Japanese imperialism that it can now make up for as a stronger, wealthier nation.

Other Chinese commenters who had managed to see the film already, perhaps abroad, expressed a measure of disappointment that “Hobbs & Shaw” felt like any other superhero or spy action film, rather than something steeped in the beloved franchise itself.

“There aren’t too many elements from the main series; if anything it made me think of last year’s ‘Mission: Impossible 6′,” one person wrote. Another quipped: “It feels like this film has a different flavor to it. If it keeps [changing] like this, they might as well just go join the Avengers.”

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