Sam Mendes’ World War I saga “1917” took the top spot at China’s box office this weekend with a $5.3 million debut, according to data from industry tracker Maoyan, as overall nationwide ticket sales dipped down from the week before.
Meanwhile, the China premiere of the 20th Century Fox’s racing drama “Ford V. Ferrari” flopped and came in fifth with just $1.2 million. Although only in its second China weekend, “Sonic the Hedgehog” didn’t even squeak past the half-million mark, grossing just $446,000.
Chinese cinemas are in their third weekend back in business after six months of closures. The depressed earnings reflect that a portion of theater remain closed in regions still at risk for COVID-19, while those that have resumed working face a number of restrictions. These include a reduction of screenings to around half their usual number, a 30% cap on max capacity, a ban on the sale and consumption of concessions, and in a few regions, a mandatory intermission programmed into films more than two hours in length.
China’s overall box office over the three-day weekend period was $17.3 million, down from $17.6 million last week and up only around 37% since theaters’ first weekend back in business, when less than half the country’s venues were open. No cinema in the country on Sunday sold more than 1,800 tickets, while only two did on Saturday. Data from consultancy Artisan Gateway shows year to date nationwide aggregate box office of $394 million, some 93% behind the running total at this time last year.
Despite the numbers, Chinese state-run media have tried to sound optimistic at home and abroad about the early figures. This suggests that drumming up confidence in the film sector is of political and economic significance to Beijing, whose influential Central Propaganda Bureau now runs the film sector.
For example, the state-run China Internet Information Center news portal took to New York-headquartered PR Newswire to push out an English-language story late last month that said the reopening of cinemas is “significant” because “it conveys positive signals that China’s economy is starting to recover from the pandemic, and social life is beginning to get back on track.”
The news portal uses that channel to push content reflecting Beijing’s key talking points, including articles opposing India’s ban on Chinese apps, defending China’s controversial national security law in Hong Kong, and highlighting Chinese poverty reduction efforts. (PR Newswire did not respond to Variety’s request for comment on its policy for amplifying content from Chinese state outlets without indication of their government ties.)
The mainland debut for “1917” bring its global cume to nearly $382 million, but the opening is quite small for a country where audiences are usually drawn in by emotional war films. In comparison, Roland Emmerich’s much less critically acclaimed (and Chinese financed) World War II film “Midway,” earned $14.4 million in China on its opening weekend last November, when business was still in full swing.
The original Feb. 21 China release for “1917” was cancelled after cinemas shut in late January due to COVID-19. It is now being distributed in China by Alibaba, on behalf of Amblin Partners. Universal Pictures distributed the title in North America, and shares international distribution rights with Amblin; eOne distributed on behalf of Amblin in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Benelux.
Chinese authorities have taken a kitchen-sink approach to content as they seek to get theaters back on track, releasing a hodge-podge of beloved local classics, little-known older foreign titles, newer Hollywood fare and Chinese blockbusters all at once to see what sticks.
Cautious audiences, however, appear to be waiting for major new titles that haven’t already snuck their way into homes over months of quarantine through piracy.
The first major new Chinese blockbuster to reach cinemas will be Huayi Brothers’ “The Eight Hundred” on Aug. 21, while the first major foreign blockbuster that has not yet released in other territories months before will be Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” on Sept. 4.
A re-release of Nolan’s “Interstellar” came in second at the box office in its first full weekend in theaters, earning $4.2 million. It grossed $680,000 of that from 502 Imax screens, bringing its eight-day Imax cume up to $2.7 million, or around a quarter of the nationwide gross.
It was followed by Robert Downey Jr.-starring “Dolittle,” which just barely eked out a few tens of thousands ahead of long-running local crime thriller “Sheep Without a Shepherd” to come in third with earnings of $2.01 million.
Last week’s top grosser, the dark coming-of-age story “The Enigma of Arrival,” didn’t even crack the top ten this week with earnings of just $88,000, a sign that audiences were eager enough for new local content that they were willing to take a chance on almost anything.
Next weekend, “Bad Boys For Life” and a restored version of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” are set to debut.