The U.S. film industry is heaving a sigh of relief that “Black Widow” is poised to become the highest grossing domestic debut of the post-pandemic era, marking America’s return to moviegoing in force.
The Scarlett Johansson-starrer is projected to earn around $80 million in its North American opening weekend, beating out “F9” last month. It will also premiere in 46 overseas markets, bringing in an expected $50 million.
China, however, isn’t on the roster.
The picture for “Black Widow” is far from rosy in the world’s largest film market, where politics are proving once again to trump profit, and piracy may destroy its box office odds before it manages to reach Chinese shores.
Although China’s censorship authorities approved “Black Widow” for release back in March, Marvel has yet to offer any indication of a release date for the key territory. (Hong Kong, meanwhile, was actually one of the first territories in the world to release it on July 7, thanks to its Asia time zone.)
A belated China release could spell trouble. Disney Plus does not operate in China. When the streaming service released the film online for a $30 fee in other territories Friday, it unleashed an easily pirated, high-definition version of the film that reached Chinese consumers within hours.
“From today on, all kinds of pirated versions of ‘Black Widow’ will begin to spread rapidly,” one film blogger wrote in resignation. “Even if it is released theatrically later, this will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the box office.”
As of Friday morning, Variety found scores of pirated videos and torrents already available on unauthorized Chinese file sharing and streaming sites, although their initial origins are unclear. On certain illegal sites powered by online gaming ads, many are available to stream for free without any registration or download procedures via a single click.
Many pirated copies are listed as 1080p HD or 4K quality, or equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. Most come already outfitted with Chinese subtitles, which are often created by groups of fast-acting volunteers or fans before the official translation is released.
On one of the major fan-generated subtitle websites, at least nine different versions of Chinese “Black Widow” subtitles were available on the front page alone. They can be downloaded separately to pair with different versions of the pirated film. The site declares that “subtitles are only used for language learning purposes; the copyright belongs to the film production.”
The same piracy issue plagued Disney’s $200 million live-action “Mulan” in China, tanking hopes that the China-set retelling of a classic Chinese folk tale with an Asian cast would become a breakout hit there. It garnered a lackluster $23 million opening weekend and $41 million cume, albeit with significant capacity restrictions on cinemas due to COVID-19.
Death Sentence for ‘Black Widow’ in China?
From a purely economic point of view, China’s delay of surefire commercial hit “Black Widow” makes little sense, particularly since its box office has been on the downswing since June, when it hit a record monthly low.
The country notched a number of box office records earlier this year off local holiday blockbuster hits, but rescheduled Hollywood tentpoles and a diminishing pool of moneymaking local productions have slowed business down. The film industry’s political obligations for July are slowing it further.
Generally, Beijing tends to program Hollywood blockbusters sparingly in the key moviegoing month of July to carve out space for local productions. This year, its resistance to scheduling foreign films has been exacerbated by the critical 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party’s founding on July 1. The occasion has been accompanied by an ongoing, months-long period of militant censorship across all media that will last through the end of the month and likely into fall.
With those factors in mind, local reports have long been predicting a death sentence for “Black Widow’s” China prospects.
“The possibility of a simultaneous release is approaching zero. In this special [July] tribute month, even ‘main melody’ [propagandistic] movies like ‘Chinese Doctors’ are facing strict censorship, let alone Hollywood films,” a blogger wrote pessimistically in June.
Beijing considers it politically paramount for the Party’s propaganda tribute films to reign over their competitors this month. Though the melodramatic titles were widely promoted, they have unsurprisingly not proved popular enough to drive Marvel-level ticket sales.
China’s major July titles are the political history films “1921” and “The Pioneer,” which have grossed just $58 million (RMB376 million) and $15.4 million (RMB100 million) so far, respectively, since their July 1 debut. The most commercial blockbuster of the bunch is the Bona Film-backed pandemic blockbuster “Chinese Doctors.” It had a muted $14.4 million opening Friday, taking what would have been “Black Widow’s” slot had it opened day-and-date with the U.S. and emerging a poor substitute.
Unverifiable local reports speculate the “Black Widow” may not release in China until mid-August, when there may be a sudden influx of Hollywood films that could end up cannibalizing each other’s box office.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment on the movie’s release date circumstances or piracy concerns.
Release Date Limbo
The “Black Widow” situation highlights the growing challenges Hollywood is facing in the post-pandemic era, as Beijing and Washington view each other with growing suspicion and new digital distribution models upend decades-old practices.
Increasingly, foreign films are finding themselves in release date limbo or unexpectedly pulled due to China’s ever-changing political winds and local programming priorities. (For instance, censors approved Pixar’s “Luca” in late May, but it has yet to set a debut.)
When theatrical windows of at least three months were still observed, digital or Blu-ray releases did not heavily impact a film’s China box office, since imports are only allowed to play in Chinese theaters for one to two months anyway, no matter how successful.
If Hollywood’s pandemic-era embrace of previously unthinkable modes of online distribution are here to stay, piracy will be a growing problem. It will become increasingly important for films seeking to guarantee the strongest possible China sales to release there before other territories or open simultaneously with their streaming debut.
A growing number of tentpoles with guaranteed Chinese audiences have already taken this approach, such as “Avengers: Endgame,” which gave China a two-day head start on the U.S., or “F9,” which was prompted by the pandemic to premiere an unprecedented full month ahead of domestic.
Locking in a China date has grown increasingly difficult as bureaucratic processes and priorities grow stricter and more opaque, meaning that companies may have to initiate censorship review processes even earlier.
Warner Bros.’ “Dune” may avoid a “Black Widow”-esque conundrum. Had the film debuted Oct. 1 as originally planned, it would have run into China’s highly political National Day holiday that same day, when it would have been elbowed out of a day-and-date release and put off for perhaps the next two weeks in order to give new nationalistic blockbusters time to sell.
Whether or not the decision to move it to Oct. 22 was intentionally made with the China market in mind, it bodes well.
“Maintaining good relations to secure release dates, combatting piracy, and deploying strong tactics to shore up word of mouth will be the most critical tasks for Hollywood revenue-share films going forward, particularly for films planning to release simultaneous both in theaters and online,” a well-regarded local film industry outlet said. “Otherwise, more and more revenue-share films will repeat the mistakes of ‘Mulan’ and ‘Black Widow,’ bringing down Hollywood’s China profits.”