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‘Detective Chinatown 3’ Tops Chinese New Year Day With $163 Million, Breaking Record for Best Debut in a Single Market

Detective Chinatown 3
Courtesy of WanDa Pictures

The world’s largest film market is living up to its title with world-record-setting sales. “Detective Chinatown 3” shot past strong competition, as predicted, on its Chinese New Year opening day on Friday, notching a record-breaking $163 million (RMB1.05 billion) in sales despite poor word of mouth.

The sum marks the highest ever opening day tally for a film in a single market, beating out former title-holder “Avengers: Endgame,” which grossed $157 million in North America on its first day in 2019.

“Detective Chinatown” sales on Friday accounted for more than 60% of China’s total new year’s day box office nationwide, which surpassed that of 2019 at $268 million (RMB1.73 billion).

The massive commercial success of director Chen Sicheng’s comedic mystery also propelled Imax to new heights. As of Friday evening local time, the firm “very confidently” projected full-day China earnings of $7.7 million from three films, 18% more than on Chinese New Year’s Day in 2019. Almost all of that revenue — some $7.4 million, or 96% — came from “Detective Chinatown 3,” which was shot on Imax cameras.

That marks the highest opening day for a Chinese film in Imax of all time. It also marks the third-highest ever opening day for any Imax film, foreign or local, in China, behind “Avengers: Endgame” ($14 million) and “Avengers: Infinity War” ($8.1 million).

According to data from the Maoyan industry tracker, 38% of all scheduled Friday screenings in China were for “Detective Chinatown.” They saw 69.4% attendance rates, meaning that most screenings were almost sold out each time, given the government’s current 75% cap on max cinema capacity to curb the spread of COVID-19 over the holidays.

Maoyan is currently estimating a whopping $976 million (RMB6.3 billion) total run for “Detective Chinatown 3” within the China market alone. That would be almost double the world’s top grossing picture of 2020, “The Eight Hundred,” which earned $461 million, and make the film the country’s highest earner in history. Current local estimates expect the film to reach $400 million over the three-day period of its first weekend.

Audiences have been yearning to see the Tokyo-set third installment of the “Detective Chinatown” franchise since last Chinese New Year, when it was a frontrunner but was extensively delayed due to COVID-19-induced cinema closures at the time.

Nevertheless, the film’s high volume of ticket sales comes despite poor word of mouth online. It has a mere 6.8 out of 10 rating on the taste-making Douban platform, where a third of users have given it just three out of five stars and 6% have given it the lowest possible one-star rating.

Many were put off by excessive product placement amidst the action. “I have never seen such shameless acts of inserting advertisements into a film before,” wrote one top comment on the site liked thousands of times. Another two-star review summed up the caper: “In a runtime of 136 minutes, it’s 110 minutes of running + 15 minutes of father-daughter interaction + 10 minutes of deduction + 1 minute of commercials.”

Numerous others felt fatigued by the franchise’s over-the-top comedic style. “You can tell from the first five minutes that this film is a dud. Everyone in it is screaming,” wrote one, while another chimed: “[Lead actor] Wang Baoqiang’s style of pretending to be crazy and stupid has reached the point of just being disgusting.”

Others complained that some of the gags were disrespectful to healthcare workers and women.

It’s worth noting that Chinese box office darlings of years past — including “Wolf Warrior 2,” the 2019 Chinese New Year breakout sci-fi epic “The Wandering Earth,” and “Nezha,” the country’s top three grossers — were all unexpected hits that saw slower box office growth propelled by strong word of mouth over time, rather than a sudden first day explosion in sales.

The Lunar New Year holiday, which this year runs from Feb. 11 to 17, is typically the most lucrative period of the year for China — a mere week in which most cinemas make more than a tenth of their annual revenue. This year, seven major tentpoles debuted on Feb. 12, with two more smaller films set to open on Valentine’s Day.

The light-hearted time-travel-themed rom-com “Hi, Mom” from writer-director-actor Jia Ling came in second with $35.5 million (RMB229 million), while “A Writer’s Odyssey,” an action-adventure film from Lu Yang (“Brotherhood of Blades”), ranked third with $21.4 million (RMB138 million).

In fourth was the perennial new year children’s favorite, animated “Boonie Bears” franchise film “The Wild Life,” which earned $17.7 (RMB114 million). Director Li Weiran’s live-action fantasy “The YinYang Master” came in fifth with $12.8 million (RMB82.4 million).

“New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” another cartoon depiction of the popular folk god Nezha, ranked sixth with a $8.97 million (RMB57.9 million) debut, while crime thriller “Endgame” was the last amongst the new releases, opening to just $6.94 million (RMB44.8 million).

Box office ranking ultimately matched up exactly with each film’s success in pre-sales, according to Maoyan. In that category, “Detective Chinatown 3” had far and away led the pack, with pre-sale ticket sales of $148 million (RMB955 million) as of early Friday evening — $104 million (RMB674 million) of which were for opening day. Its closest competitor, “Hi, Mom,” sold $34 million (RMB219 million), while third place “A Writer’s Odyssey” sold $13.4 million (RMB86.4 million).

“The outstanding performance of the film market is due to a sufficient supply of films during Spring Festival… of diversified content and genres,” wrote an analysis piece published by the People’s Daily newspaper, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece.

Another major factor, it said, was that due to COVID-19, citizens have been strongly urged to celebrate the new year in place without travelling home, meaning that many — particularly urban migrant workers who would typically return to rural hometowns — are experiencing an unconventional holiday in which movie-going may appear to be a more attractive option.