By Patrick Frater
Asia Bureau Chief
“Dune” and “Oppenheimer” will both enjoy a return to cinemas in mainland China next month.
They head a fleet of Hollywood titles aiming for renewed success in the world’s second-largest theatrical box office market – albeit after the Chinese New Year holiday period has prioritized local titles.
Mainland China’s film market is heavily controlled by authorities, which use a variety of methods including script approvals and censorship, to regulate the content arriving on screens and manage the market’s orderly development. The import of foreign film titles into China is additionally controlled through import permits and distribution quotas, though these currently appear to be loosening in an attempt to revive a sector which last year was 15% below 2019 levels, despite tens of thousands of new cinema screens coming on stream.
Part of the 2023 problem for Chinese cinemas may have been the collapse to less than 15% market share of Hollywood in a territory that U.S. titles dominated a decade earlier.
The partial relaxation of China’s controls on imported content means that several Hollywood studios have now got more time to plan for upcoming releases and build marketing campaigns in tandem with the state-owned company that is the distributor of record for revenue-sharing releases in China.
Universal’s “Argylle,” which topped lukewarm North American and international markets over the latest weekend, will release in China on Feb. 23. It will be followed a week later by Sony’s “Madame Web” and the reissue of “Oppenheimer.”
“Oppenheimer” originally released in China in August and was a surprise hit in the country, where it was praised for its originality and daring. It was one of Hollywood’s few successes in 2023 in China, where it earned $65 million. The Denis Villeneuve-directed “Dune” released in China in October 2021 and earned a more modest $38 million.
Rereleases and extensions of theatrical runs beyond a standard four weeks for Hollywood imports are relatively rare (but not unheard of) in China. And both require approval from film authorities.
In the case of “Oppenheimer,” the rerelease appears intended to capitalize on growing interest ahead of the Oscars ceremony on March 10. But the Christopher Nolan-directed title will have to compete for premium large screens with “Dune,” which will rerelease the same day on March 1.
“Dune,” which is believed to have a fan-base in China, but released in the middle of the COVID era, could likely have done better. The film’s rerelease will neatly cue up the March 8 release of “Dune 2” and allow uninitiated viewers to catch up on the back story.
At least two other Hollywood titles have also already been given runway to succeed in China. Dreamworks Animation/ Universal’s Chinese-themed “Kung Fu Panda 4” will release on March 22, two weeks after the beginning of its international rollout. That will be followed a week later by “Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire” on March 29, the same weekend as North America and the bulk of its international outings.
While there is unusual forward visibility into the Hollywood releasing schedule in China over the next couple of months, it is also clear that the U.S. titles must take their turn behind the locally-produced tentpoles and franchise pictures that will release this coming weekend in time for Chinese New Year.
The week-long holiday (this year it officially runs Feb. 10-17, but employers are encouraged to give workers time off on Friday, Feb. 9 as well) has become the biggest cinema-going season of the year in China. Last year, gross revenues clocked in only fractionally shy of $1 billion. This time, at least eight significant titles will be competing in the mostly family entertainment space. They include: “Pegasus 2” a car-racing comedy sequel; “Yolo,” the latest film by “Hi, Mom” star and director Jia Ling; and “Article 20,” this year’s offering by the evergreen Zhang Yimou.
In several cases, the U.S. pictures’ Chinese connections may be a helpful factor. Legendary East, a China subsidiary of Legendary Entertainment — the Hollywood studio that remains partly-controlled by China’s Wanda Culture despite the financial woes of Wanda owner Wang Jianlin — is the entity credited as presenter of “Dune,” “Dune 2” and “Godzilla x Kong.” In overseas territories, Warner Bros. is the distributor of record.
And while “Kung Fu Panda 4” does not have the East-West co-venture status that 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3” enjoyed – China Film Group and the since dissolved Oriental Dreamworks were credited as producers – it is understood that state-owned China Film retains a “supervised by” credit on the new picture.
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