China Box Office: Chinese Moviegoers Dead on ‘Arrival’

The first contact film failed to make a connection with Chinese cinema fans.

Hong Kong-American actor Tzi Ma portrays Chinese General Shang who plays a pivotal role in "Arrival." (Courtesy Mtime)

Hong Kong-American actor Tzi Ma portrays Chinese General Shang who plays a pivotal role in Arrival. (Courtesy Mtime)

Arrival (降临), the third Hollywood science-fiction release in as many weeks, eked out a feeble victory at China’s box office, debuting with just RMB 52.6 million (US$7.4 million) on a slow pre-Lunar New Year weekend.

This total represents 25 percent less than predicted for the film, an opening less than half of Passengers’ start in China last weekend, and just a quarter of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s debut two weekends ago.

Unlike American audiences and critics who praised the film as thought-provoking, general audiences in China gave a resounding thumbs-down to Arrival, with social media declaring the film a plodding, incomprehensible mess.

“To my surprise, I couldn’t understand what I was watching,” wrote the most-liked negative review on the online ticketing portal, Maoyan, where Arrival’s rating sits at 7.5/10, a half-point lower than Rogue One. “Two choices,” the user advised fellow moviegoers: “Stay to the end and feel like an idiot, or just grab some shut-eye.”

Others seemed disappointed that Arrival was billed as a science-fiction film but lacked the big set pieces and eye-grabbing visuals of Interstellar or The Martian.

Still others felt the film’s Chinese elements to condescend as well as pander to local audiences. China is given a pivotal role in the film’s climax, a face-giving plot point in which [SPOILER ALERT!] Chinese leaders turn out to be responsible for rescuing humanity from its doom — this has become virtually by-the-numbers in Hollywood sci-fi films from 2012 to Gravity, and Chinese moviegoers are increasingly hip to the game.

In a close second place, Passengers (太空旅客) dropped 58 percent in its second weekend in theaters, grossing RMB 47.8 million ($7.0 million) for a 10-day total of RMB 239 million ($34.8 million). The popularity of stars Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence in China has helped Passengers exceed initial box office expectations.

Meanwhile, local comedy Some Like It Hot (情圣) leapfrogged Rogue One to grab third place this weekend, falling only 25 percent from last weekend to earn RMB 39.5 million ($5.7 million). Given its modest production budget, Some Like It Hot has emerged as a rousing success, especially in smaller third- and fourth-tier cities, with a gross of RMB 571 million to date ($83 million). The film has received a release extension until March 5, and will play through the busy Lunar New Year holiday.

Finally, Rogue One (星球大战外传:侠盗一号) continued its decline in the Chinese market, falling an additional 62 percent to RMB 24 million ($3.5 million) on its third weekend of release. Disney’s stand-alone Star Wars episode has grossed RMB 425 million ($61.8 million) to date in China.

This upcoming week represents perhaps the quietest period of the entire calendar year for the movie business, as Chinese families instead gather at home for pre-Lunar New Year festivities. That will all change next Saturday, January 28 with the release of four major domestic films which have already sold a combined RMB 106 million ($15.4 million) worth of presale tickets. We are once again expecting box office records to shatter over the weeklong holiday and we will have a preview of the main contenders this Thursday in On Screen China.