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These Hollywood Movies Were Saved By The Chinese Box Office

Chinese audiences really love American movies that have big car chases, adorable dogs, Vin Diesel — and, possibly, Ruby Rose.

Originally posted on
Updated on

When Transformers: The Last Knight debuted this week, the box office headlines were not kind. The fifth movie of director Michael Bay's paean to alien robots and visual chaos earned the worst domestic debut for the franchise, with just $68.5 million over its first five days in theaters. By comparison, 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction earned $100 million domestically over its first three days of release.

With domestic interest cratering, Paramount's plan to expand the Transformers movies into their own cinematic universe — starting with a Bumblebee spinoff reportedly set to star Hailee Steinfeld — appeared to be on shaky financial ground.

And then the Chinese box office numbers for Transformers: The Last Knight came in: $125.3 million, the biggest Chinese debut in the franchise's history.

This is becoming a pattern for Hollywood: A movie either disappoints or flops in the US and Canada, only to see its box office fortunes lifted by a robust theatrical performance in China. The Chinese market has become increasingly central to Hollywood's financial health over the last several years — according to the Associated Press, as of December 2016, China has surpassed the US as the country with the greatest number of total movie screens (40,917, to be exact).

Financially, the biggest box office market overall is still the US and Canada. Studios are only privy to 25% of box office earnings in China (as opposed to roughly half of domestic earnings), and that same AP report noted that many movies in China are playing to empty theaters.

Still, China remains the best opportunity for growth for Hollywood's major studios, especially with domestic ticket sales largely stagnating or in decline over the past decade. Bloomberg even reported recently that the Motion Picture Association of America is auditing China's box office for the first time due to concerns local theaters are under-reporting box office receipts.

As China's importance to Hollywood continues to grow, more Hollywood films will continue to perform better in China than at home. Here's a list of movies from 2017 that exemplifies that trend, in order of what percentage of the film's global gross was earned in China.

9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Disney

Total Chinese gross (% of total): $172,200,000 (25.4%)

Total domestic gross (% of total): $160,161,569 (23.6%)

Total global gross: $679,278,452

Johnny Depp's box office clout has been a dim shadow of its former glory for a while in the US — and allegations of spousal abuse last year certainly did not help. But he remains a draw internationally — particularly in China, which accounted for roughly 25% of the fifth Pirates film's global box office take. The movie has also pulled in a significant bounty in Russia, Germany, the UK, France, and South Korea.

8. The Mummy

Universal Pictures

Total Chinese gross: $89,300,000 (26%)

Total domestic gross: $68,744,165 (20%)

Total global gross: $343,933,058

Like Depp, Tom Cruise's star power is now much greater with foreign audiences than at home: The paltry domestic box office take of his latest film, the who-asked-for-this remake of The Mummy, accounts for just 20% of the movie's global gross, with China accounting for 26%. Universal Pictures is planning to use Cruise, Depp, and The Mummy costar Russell Crowe to launch its really-who-asked-for-this Dark Universe franchise, and the studio is clearly banking on the pull each of these stars still has with foreign audiences to make it work.

7. Kong: Skull Island

Warner Bros.

Total Chinese gross: $168,188,002 (29.71%)

Total domestic gross: $168,052,812 (29.68%)

Total global gross: $566,152,812

Yet another monster movie franchise! Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures' second film in their interconnected suite of giant monster movies is at least proving itself financially, earning more than its predecessor — 2014's Godzilla. The difference between the Chinese and domestic takes for Skull Island has been just $135,190. That said, Skull Island actually earned $32.6 million less in the US and Canada than Godzilla took in — while in China, Skull Island earned $90.6 million more than Godzilla did. Perhaps one contributing factor to Skull Island's better box office fortunes in China was that Chinese actress Jing Tian landed a supporting role in the film — an increasingly popular tactic for raising an American movie's profile in China.

6. The Fate of the Furious

Universal Pictures

Total Chinese gross: $392,807,017 (31.7%)

Total domestic gross: $225,197,855 (18.2%)

Total global gross: $1,238,170,965

In 2013, Fast & Furious 6 earned $172.2 million more in the US and Canada than it did in China. Four years later, The Fate of the Furious has earned $167.6 million more in China than it has earned in the US and Canada. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the growth of the Chinese box office, and the international expansion of the Fast and Furious franchise.

5. A Dog's Purpose

Universal Pictures

Total Chinese gross: $88,226,996 (45.7%)

Total domestic gross: $64,321,890 (33.3%)

Total global gross: $193,070,974

That's right, this heart-tugging tale of the apparent reincarnating power of a canine's spirit was a bigger hit in China than it was in the US. The controversy surrounding leaked video showing a dog seemingly (but, according to an independent investigation, misleadingly) being forced into churning water likely dampened domestic audience enthusiasm for the film. But still, China accounted for a whopping 45.7% of the movie's global earnings. The power of dogs clearly transcends all languages.

4. Transformers: The Last Knight

Paramount Pictures

Total Chinese gross: $123,400,000 (46.8%)

Total domestic gross: $68,475,562 (25.6%)

Total global gross: $267,675,562

Even with its strong debut in China, The Last Knight has a lot of ground to cover if it's going to come close to matching the $320 million its predecessor, Age of Extinction, earned there in 2014.

3. xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Paramount Pictures

Total Chinese gross: $164,066,583 (47.4%)

Total domestic gross: $44,898,413 (13%)

Total global gross: $346,147,658

Domestically, Vin Diesel is a major box office star only when "Fast" and/or "Furious" appears in a title — audiences just don't seem to care otherwise (despite his massive Facebook following). The same used to be true for Diesel with foreign audiences — until last January, when the third film in the seriously-WHO-ASKED-FOR-THIS xXx action franchise debuted and became a sensation in China, earning an astonishing 47.4% of its global box office there. The decision to cast Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and Chinese actor and pop star Kris Wu probably didn't hurt either.

2. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Screen Gems

Total Chinese gross: $159,548,686 (51.1%)

Total domestic gross: $26,830,068 (8.6%)

Total global gross: $312,242,626

Someday, someone will be able to explain why the sixth (and allegedly final) film in this 15-year-old zombie horror franchise earned more on its opening weekend in China ($94.3 million) than Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($52.3 million) did — and how it would go on to take an astonishing 51.1% of its global gross in China. One possible theory: Both this film and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage costarred Ruby Rose, whose universal appeal apparently also transcends all languages.

1. The Great Wall

Universal Pictures

Total Chinese gross: $170,962,106 (51.5%)

Total domestic gross: $45,157,105 (13.6%)

Total global gross: $331,957,105

The least surprising movie on this list has to be the one set in Song-dynasty China, directed by renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero), and featuring a largely Chinese-friendly cast (Skull Island's Jing, major Hong Kong actor Andy Lau, and popular Chinese music stars Lu Han and Wang Junkai). In the US, The Great Wall — a coproduction between Universal, the Chinese-owned American production company Legendary Entertainment, and Chinese firms China Film Group and Le Vision Pictures — came in for pointed criticism for a marketing campaign dominated by white, American star Matt Damon. Ultimately, domestic audiences shrugged. In China, where audiences were much less concerned about Damon's presence, the movie was a modest hit, earning 51.5% of its global gross there. But without support from domestic ticket buyers, The Great Wall was ultimately seen as a costly failure, and a cautionary tale for the risks of attempting a Chinese-American coproduction.

UPDATE

This story has been updated with Bloomberg’s report of the MPAA auditing Chinese box office for under-reporting.

Adam B. Vary is a senior film reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Adam B. Vary at adam.vary@buzzfeed.com.

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