Robert Downey Jr.’s family film “Dolittle” and Sony’s thriller “Bloodshot” led China’s first opening weekend at the box office since the coronavirus outbreak, a sign that new titles sell better than re-runs of beloved classics. Five out of the top 10 films this weekend were Hollywood titles.
China began reopening theaters in regions deemed at low risk for COVID-19 on Monday. As of noon on Sunday, local time, it had opened around 4,900 cinemas, accounting for approximately 44% of the country’s total. They are currently only allowed to operate at 30% capacity to provide sufficient social distancing between customers.
“Dolittle,” from Universal, was the top title this weekend with a $4.71 million three-day debut, according to Chinese data provider Ent Group. Vin Diesel-starring “Bloodshot,” backed by China’s Bona Film Group, trailed in second place, bowing to the tune of $2.61 million.
Local crime thriller “Sheep Without a Shepherd” came in third with $2 million. This is the third theatrical outing for the Chinese adaptation of the 2013 Indian film “Drishyam,” after it premiered last December and hit screens again briefly in March.
In fourth and fifth slots were re-releases of the family-friendly Disney animations, “Coco” and “Zootopia,” which grossed $740,000 and $290,000, respectively. The 2006 Will Smith-starring title “The Pursuit of Happyiness” came in sixth with $220,000 in ticket sales.
A hodge podge of local offerings lagged behind Western titles. They included the 2009 spy thriller “The Message,” animation blockbuster “Ne Zha,” a new arthouse film “A First Farewell,” and “Chinese Odyssey Part Two: Cinderella,” all of which grossed less than $200,000.
The total nationwide weekend box office was $12.6 million (RMB88.6 million).
That result is far and away better than the pathetic whimper of business that cinemas did in late March, when there was greater uncertainty about the patterns of COVID-19 in China. At that time, authorities allowed around 500 cinemas — approximately 5% of China’s total — to re-open in low-risk regions, but they collectively earned just $10,000 (RMB72,000) in their opening weekend. They were quickly ordered shut again without explanation soon after.
This time around, China hopes things will be different. More cinemas are opening with a greater degree of official support and a larger selection of films at a time when the public has already been comfortably galavanting about returning to spaces like tourist sites, restaurants and malls in most of the country for months.
Reports from Chinese state media and listed film companies — parties admittedly interested in trumpeting a rapid rebound — touted cinemas’ current recovery as “faster than expected,” having risen from a single-day box office of RMB3 million ($428,000) to RMB30 million ($4.28 million) in just six days. They celebrated that the national box office has already broken the RMB100 million mark and that a million tickets have already been sold.
Though China’s early numbers are encouraging at a time when cinemas around the world are shutting for the foreseeable future, there is still room for growth.
This weekend’s nationwide ticket sales amounted to just a quarter of January’s average weekend box office pre-shutdowns, and just 16% of the weekend average for last year’s much busier month of December, according to Variety’s calculations.
Beijing was given the green light to re-open its cinemas on Friday just in time for this opening weekend, six months to the day of when cinemas initially shut due to COVID-19. Meanwhile, however, cinemas in the northeastern port city of Dalian, home to some seven million people, were abruptly ordered shut Thursday just as they were in the midst of reopening due to a new surge of coronavirus cases there.
IMAX cinemas began to re-open from Friday. As of Sunday, 369 of its more than 700 screens in China were back in back in business. The company expects at least 600 of its theaters will be up and running again by mid-August.
Like other exhibitors, IMAX China has been hammered by the extended closures, warning earlier this week of expected losses of up to $36 million in the first half of the year. Globally, however, IMAX was up 30% this weekend from last, with a overall cume of $1.3 million from theaters worldwide.
In China, “Dolittle” earned $535,000 from 266 IMAX screens, accounting for 11% of its national weekend gross, while “Bloodshot” earned $210,000 from 228 IMAX screens, accounting for about 7% of its nation-wide earnings.
Upcoming China premieres and re-runs of foreign films currently include: “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Big Hero 6,” “47 Meters Down: Uncaged,” and France’s “Mia and the White Lion” on July 31; “Interstellar” on Aug. 2; “Ford vs. Ferrari” and “1917” on Aug. 7; “Bad Boys for Life” on Aug. 14; and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 3D” on Aug. 14.