Two American science fiction films faced off on a pre-holiday weekend.Passengers (太空旅客), the sci-fi romance featuring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence as starship-wrecked lovers, took advantage of a quiet pre-Lunar New Year release date to debut with RMB 121 million (US$17.5 million) in first place this weekend at the Chinese box office. Meanwhile, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (星球大战外传：侠盗一号) plummeted 70 percent on its second weekend of release, grossing just RMB 63 million ($9.1 million) for a 10-day total of RMB 365 million ($52.9 million).
China’s chūnyùn (春运), the world’s largest human mass migration in which Chinese citizens will take an estimated 2.5 billion trips over the next 40 days, began in full force on Friday as college students finished midterm exams and headed home for the Lunar New Year.
New Year’s Day — or chū yī (初一) — falls on Saturday, January 28, this year, and moviegoing business during the preceding two weeks will be among the slowest of the entire year as travel, family visits, and preparation for the traditional New Year’s Eve feast take precedence over leisure activities.
Passengers entered this pre-Lunar New Year malaise with understandably limited box office potential, and in that light, its $17.5 million debut this weekend should be seen as a modest victory.
Rogue One, on the other hand, continued to struggle. The film’s box office decline from its opening weekend (70 percent) exceeded the percentage of screens lost (60 percent), and average per screening attendance tumbled, all indicating demand for Disney’s stand-alone Star Wars installment is quickly flagging.
Rogue One’s poor box office performance also comes despite Disney’s casting of local stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, whose inclusion undoubtedly was intended to ingratiate unfamiliar Chinese audiences with the larger Star Wars universe. With several future Star Wars installments already in the pipeline, Disney will now have an uphill battle converting new fans in the world’s second-largest film market.
In addition to Passengers, two other Hollywood films debuted this weekend, both failing to gain any kind of traction with Chinese moviegoers. Kubo and the Two Strings, the stop-motion animation from Laika Entertainment grossed RMB 21 million ($3.0 million), and Eye In The Sky, the situation-room thriller starring Helen Mirren, blinked to just RMB 8.4 million ($1.2 million). Both films were delayed several months from their North American premieres, and piracy likely played a factor in their disappointing box office performances.