Why are American Movies Underperforming at the Chinese Box Office?

Post-COVID shutdowns, Hollywood has lost its luster in Asia

This past weekend, Black Widow broke $80 million at the domestic box office. Though Variety described these numbers as dazzling, this was a definite shortfall from the $100 million opening projected by analysts. The numbers are somewhat more impressive once you factor in $78 million from the international box office, and $60 million from Disney Plus Premiere Access. But even the full $218 million is a far cry from the pre-pandemic $455 million total earned by Captain Marvel.

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COVID-19 jumps to mind as the main obvious culprit here, and the entertainment press has been widely describing Black Widow as a major success even in light of these weak comparative numbers. But there’s one major snag to this interpretation–the international box office. The Chinese market in particular has long recovered from the pandemic. The sentimental time travel fantasy Hi, Mom leapt to second place in the all-time Chinese box office this past February with a $821 million haul. The mystery comedy Detective Chinatown 3 wasn’t much further behind, with $685 million and and a fifth place all-time ranking from the same release date.

Nor is the Chinese box office a major outlier. Despite an overall collapse in box office revenue, the Japanese market had a major hit with the Demon Slayer anime movie last year, which had $367 million domestically and another $88 million worldwide. Half of that even came from the American market, which is notoriously hostile to foreign releases. The Indian market is still struggling with a $66 million total 2021 box office as of this writing. This is a far cry from the $445 million of 2019 but a noteworthy improvement over the $54 million for all of 2020.

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The Cold War doesn’t play in Communist China anymore. ‘Black Widow’ underperforms the Chinese market.

A noteworthy commonality of all these markets is an almost complete dearth of American movies. While that’s business as usual for Bollywood, the disappearance of American films from the Japanese market is an outlier even given the lack of major releases due to the pandemic. For a sense of perspective, the best performing foreign film in Japan in 2020 wasn’t even an American film at all, but the delayed release of the South Korean film Parasite.

It might be time to acknowledge that we may not just be getting old. Major American movies may indeed be getting worse, or at least so cynically produced compared to what people actually want to watch that this is the real reason they’re falling behind.

As for South Korea, not quite a film market on the scale of the other three but important nevertheless, American films are actually doing better than usual but mostly due to a lack of serious domestic competition. This will likely change with a flurry of major summer releases over the next month. So far the Demon Slayer movie actually tops the box office there for this year, rather than any American title, simply because it’s had ridiculous legs worldwide.

Which, finally, brings us back to the hype for Black Widow. The reason opening box office was such a big deal for Black Widow is because in recent years, even prior to the pandemic, strong openings have been considered more important than consistent long term performance. Major releases drop out of theaters quickly following the initial publicity–all the better to cash in on lucrative streaming revenue, which is where the real money tends to come from anyway.

For the sake of maintaining box office centrality to the hype machine, as well as to assist in tax dodging, film companies have done their best to obfuscate these secondary revenue streams. Which is why the big news about Black Widow’s release, the one that really dazzled, was Disney’s decision to release the Disney Plus Premiere Access numbers. They had not done so with any other movie.

And in this case, the Disney Plus Premiere Access numbers were the critical push that made the initial $100 million projections for Black Widow still seem mostly correct. Whether the Disney Plus Premiere Access numbers should really qualify as box office remains ambiguous. It’s probably better than not including them- but at the same time, we’re just taking Disney’s word for it that these numbers are accurate at all. There’s no way to verify them as there is with regular box office numbers.

All this talk of complicating factors to the numbers ultimately serves as nitpicking though, against one fact that’s seeming increasingly hard to ignore. People don’t exactly seem enthusiastic about Hollywood anymore following a COVID-enforced break of major releases. The Fast and the Furious franchise, once a darling of the Chinese market, had a surprising underperformance there with F9 about in line with how F9 fared in the United States.

Domestic Chinese films seem unaffected by contrast. The excuse given for Black Widow not yet opening in China was to avoid competing with patriotically themed Chinese films in the centennial of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. But in the wake of F9’s weak performance, such excuses sound like wishful thinking. It’s convenient, after all, to frame the tastes of Chinese filmgoers as chauvinism rather than acknowledge they may find local content with modern themes more relevant than a superhero movie based on American interpreted Cold War mythology. For a sense of perspective, the major Chinese film Black Widow dodged competing against, Chinese Doctors, is a sentimental drama about COVID first responders.

It might be time to acknowledge that we may not just be getting old. Major American movies may indeed be getting worse, or at least so cynically produced compared to what people actually want to watch that this is the real reason they’re falling behind. COVID-19 may have just accelerated the process–in which case carefully curated releases of streaming numbers will only disguise that shortfall for so long.

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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

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