Get ready for an unprecedented weekend at the global box office, with a twist in China. While North America and the rest of planet Earth prepare for the outbreak of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Chinese audiences will be flocking to theaters for what is almost certain to be the highest-grossing weekend in the history of the country’s young box office, where two homegrown films will dominate: the effects-driven Mojin—The Lost Legend (寻龙诀) and the low-budget comedy Surprise (万万没想到).
It will be the first weekend of an imported-film blackout period that will run until Star Wars releases in China on January 9. Both of this weekend’s big releases will overtake theaters, occupying more than 85% of China’s 26,000 screens and ushering out the Hollywood competition from The Martian ($89.7 million) and Point Break ($36.6 million), the two films that have led the box office since late November.
The anticipated success of both Mojin and Surprise represents two distinct paths Chinese studios are taking in the emerging film industry, and each offers a glimpse into how culture, shifting demographics, and the Internet are shaping its future.
Mojin—The Lost Legend (寻龙诀)
China Distribution: Wuzhou Film Distribution Co. (五洲电影发行有限公司)
U.S. Distribution: Well Go USA
Chinese industry watchers think Mojin may become the first film ever to gross RMB 3 billion ($460 million), and if there’s any indication that China is taking lessons from Hollywood, then this mega-budget, SFX-driven crowd-pleaser is it.
Led by an A-list cast featuring Huang Bo (Lost in Thailand), Shu Qi (The Assassin), and Angelababy (Rise of the Legend), the film is based on the wildly popular online novel Ghost Blows Out The Light (鬼吹灯) which follows the adventures of a legendary team of grave robbers. China’s cultural obsession with tomb raiding will likely lead Mojin to attract audiences from all four quadrants (male and female, and above and below 25 years of age), as well as the increasingly-important post-90s female demographic as well as those in third- and fourth-tier cities. With the might of Wanda Pictures, Enlight Pictures, and Huayi Brothers on board as investors, along with Wuzhou, Wanda’s distribution arm, Mojin has its eyes on surpassing Monster Hunt, the highest-grossing film of all-time in China and another of what’s known as a “family portrait“ movie (合家欢片 héjiāhuān piàn), one that the whole family can enjoy.
China Distribution: Bona Film Group (博纳影业集团）
U.S. Distribution: Asia Releasing
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Surprise originated as a fledgling comedy web series on internet video site Youku Tudou and has built a massive following, with more than two billion cumulative views since premiering in 2013.
Faced with the daunting challenge of Mojin‘s release this weekend, Surprise already opened in the widest previews on record last weekend, grossing $17.3 million from Saturday and Sunday screenings alone. However, that early release strategy may have backfired once online word of mouth from its legion fans turned sour.
On the big screen, the low-budget Surprise continues to chart the plight of Chinese diaosi (屌丝) — an internet term roughly translated as “loser” that also implies an ordinary citizen without the family background or social connections to needed to get rich in contemporary China. The film echoes the summer breakout comedy Pancake Man (煎饼侠), which originated from another hit web series on Sohu, a rival video site. Chinese studios increasingly are turning to the web for cheap intellectual property with large built-in fanbases, knowing that these same young people will turn out in droves at the cineplex.
Surprise was developed through Youku Tudou’s own film division, Heyi Pictures (合一影业), and Yokou Tudou recently was wholly acquired by Alibaba, the e-commerce behemoth that continues to enlarge its stake in the media business to compete with other movie business newcomers such as Baidu, Tencent, and Mojin backer Wanda.
Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter: @ChinaBoxOffice