Sony executives breathed a sigh of relief when “Uncharted,” a big-budget adaptation of the popular video game, secured a release date in China.
The Chinese government, which has absolute control over which movies play in its theaters (and when they debut), has recently been ultra-selective about the non-Chinese films it allows to screen in the country’s tens of thousands of venues. As a result, many of Hollywood’s biggest pandemic-era releases, such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals,” weren’t granted access to Chinese movie theaters. That absence has wound up costing those movies tens — and in some cases hundreds — of millions of dollars in box office revenues.
“Getting any blockbuster into China right now feels like a big deal,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
But just because “Uncharted” is set to open in China on March 14 does not mean the film is destined to succeed there. In an alternate timeline, an action-adventure like “Uncharted,” which stars “Spider-Man” actor Tom Holland as treasure hunter Nathan Drake, would have likely minted money in China. Now, it will instead serve as a vital test of whether or not Chinese moviegoers have any interest in Hollywood product. As of late, the select movies that China’s censors have approved ultimately failed to connect at the box office.
That was the case with the latest James Bond sequel “No Time to Die,” which made $64 million in China, and director Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” remake, which earned $39 million in China — far less than their studios would have hoped when they were greenlit years ago. “Death on the Nile” continued that trend, debuting to a paltry $5.9 million over the weekend. The star-studded murder mystery from Kenneth Branagh will struggle to match the box office receipts of its predecessor, 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” which made $34.6 million in China.
“Hollywood exports that have opened in the Middle Kingdom recently haven’t exactly set the box office ablaze,” Bock says. “China used to be a surefire way for American films to blow past $1 billion worldwide.”
In the current world order, reaching the billion-dollar mark without playing in China is no longer a guarantee. In more cases than not, it has become entirely out of reach. It’s an issue because these big-budget tentpoles were produced in another era: Not just pre-pandemic, but at a time when China was showing a great deal of enthusiasm for Hollywood films. Fervor for franchises like Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and “The Fast and the Furious” gave executives the confidence to push production budgets higher and higher, knowing a strong turnout in China would pay off handsomely.
The PG-13 “Uncharted” cost $90 million to produce and several millions more to market to global audiences, which is a hefty total but not enough to require “Spider-Man: No Way Home”-level revenues to make money. (“Spider-Man: No Way Home,” another Holland-led tentpole, grossed a mammoth $1.83 billion globally.) However, ticket sales in China could be the difference between simply breaking even and making the kind of bank that leads to sequels and spinoffs.
Already, “Uncharted” has been popular at the box office. The film has grossed $139 million globally so far, suggesting the path to profitability for “Uncharted” may not rise and fall on China. The long-gestating tentpole collected a huge $51 million domestically through the extended holiday weekend and another $55.4 million from 62 overseas markets, bringing its four-day tally to $106 million globally. That’s an unusually robust start for a non-sequel, and a sign of Holland’s new box office prowess outside of his stint as Spider-Man.
Wall Street Journal reporter Erich Schwartzel, who wrote the book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” says there are several other theories to explain the hostility from moviegoers in China.
“One is there’s a broader trend toward Chinese moviegoers preferring Chinese entertainment,” Schwartzel recently told Variety. “This feels more charged than that. It feels like an effort to punish America as tensions rise.” He adds, “There also seems to be an effort within China to stir nationalism and keep outside influence out.”
Other elements weighing against Hollywood include China explicitly using film imports to punish political enemies (the U.S., South Korea, India) and woo potential friends (Russia, Japan, Italy and India again), as well as the shortage of Hollywood tentpoles in 2020 when U.S. theaters were closed and Chinese turnstiles were still spinning.
In 2018 and 2019, China also restructured its film industry to control the number of films that were made elsewhere. Between 2012 and 2019, China had approved 45 to 55 U.S.-produced movies each year, according to Comscore. But as China overtook the U.S. as the biggest theatrical market in 2020 and 2021, the amount dropped notably to roughly 31 movies each year. So far in 2022, just six U.S.-made films have been accepted to play in China. All of this has played out against a fraught geopolitical backdrop as tensions have risen between the U.S. government and the Chinese government over everything from trade to Russia’s moves in Ukraine.
“Uncharted” could defy the odds when it comes to selling tickets in China because video game adaptations have been more consistently beloved in the Middle Kingdom compared to the U.S. The 2018 film “Tomb Raider,” starring Alicia Vikander as the hyper-athletic archeologist Lara Croft, flopped in North America with $58 million (remember, that was considered catastrophic in pre-pandemic times), but it comparatively made a small fortune in China with $78 million. Likewise, Dwayne Johnson’s 2018 video game adaptation “Rampage” earned $156 million in China and only $100 million at the domestic box office, while another 2018 release, director Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” generated $218 million in China and a slightly less thrilling $137 million Stateside. “Detective Pikachu” was the rare surprise hit in both North America and China, grossing $144 million domestically and $93 million in the Middle Kingdom in 2019. “Sonic the Hedgehog” has been the only recent exception, grossing only $2.8 million in China. But that’s because it was released in July of 2020 when the pandemic had already devastated the theatrical market and multiplexes were enforcing strict COVID-19 restrictions.
By the time “Uncharted” lands in China, it will have been available in the U.S. for more than three weeks. Some believe the window between the film’s domestic and China debut could pose a problem as it will allow more bootlegged copies to hit the market. Others think the 25-day lapse isn’t significant enough become an issue because “Uncharted” is playing exclusively in theaters and isn’t yet available on streaming services.
Pandemic releases like “Jungle Cruise,” “Encanto,” “The Matrix: Resurrections” and “Paw Patrol” bombed in China in part because they did not hit local movie theaters until months after they debuted in North American cinemas. By that time, they were already old hat in China and readily available on piracy websites so they hardly sold any tickets. “Encanto” appeared to have a solid chance of becoming a triumph in China since animated favorites like 2016’s Zootopia” made $236 million and 2017’s “Coco” earned $189 million there. Instead, Disney’s newest cartoon musical fable misfired, debuting to $3.2 million in early January and since collecting a meager $12 million. “PAW Patrol” suffered a similar fate, grossing just $12.7 million. And Dwayne Johnson, once a massive box office draw in China, steered “Jungle Cruise” to an abysmal $7 million.
“Two-to four weeks-following the rest of the world is OK, particularly for these movies, which are big — as long as it’s exclusive to theaters and not available on streaming,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, of release dates. “It shouldn’t be longer than that.”
With that in mind, other upcoming releases, like the Robert Pattinson’s superhero caper “The Batman,” may not be impacted by timing. The Warner Bros. film bows in China on March 18, two weeks after the movie premieres in North America on March 4. Other films about the Caped Crusader, in versions led by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, have been successful in China, with “The Dark Knight Rises” earning $53 million in 2012, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” scoring $97 million in 2016, and “Justice League” collecting $106 million in 2017. So even with a slightly later release date, box office experts feel confident in the big screen appeal of Bruce Wayne. That means if people skip “The Batman,” it may not be because American audiences have already seen it — or because others could have illegally put it online.
“Piracy is always a backseat concern,” Bock says. “However, most multiplex masses prefer to watch popcorn entertainment on the biggest screen possible.”