China Box Office: ‘Civil War’ Leads in Lull, Indie Producer Begs for Screens

  • Civil War Disney’s second film of 2016 after Zootopia to gross more than RMB 1 billion ($153M)
  • Indie producer begs theaters to screen arthouse film Song of the Phoenix by the late Wu Tianming
  • Jia Zhangke to unveil a Beijing-based online video portal to showcase independent short films

Captain America is set to pay a return visit to China in May.

Disney’s Captain America: Civil War topped the Chinese box office once again last weekend, despite dropping two-thirds from its opening weekend business, as a weak crop of new commercial releases — including two films starring Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds — failed to launch new leader.

The biggest film news this week came from Song of the Phoenix (百鸟朝凤), a critically acclaimed arthouse film from the late Fourth Generation director Wu Tianming (吴天明), which opened last weekend and debuted to just 1.54 million ($256K), lost amidst Civil War’s dominating performance.

Late Thursday night, outspoken Chinese film producer and proponent of arthouse cinema, Fang Li (方励) — whose credits include film festival favorites Summer Palace, Lost in Beijing, and Buddha Mountain — took to social media with a live feed of himself kneeling down and begging theater managers to allot more screenings for Wu’s Song of the Phoenix.

Starting Friday — after Fang’s video went viral and made national headlines — leaders from several theater chains including Huayi Brothers (华谊), China Film Stellar (星美), UME, Broadway (百老汇), and Lumière Pavilions (卢米埃) promised to increase screenings at their theaters.

As a result of this support and the public attention brought about by Fang’s viral pleading, Song of the Phoenix earned RMB 22.7 million ($3.5 million) this weekend, 13 times its opening weekend gross, and had the highest average attendance of any film currently in release.

Fang’s desperate act also brought into the spotlight once again the plight of independent and arthouse cinema in the overwhelmingly commercial Chinese marketplace, and the need for a dedicated arthouse cinema network.

Meanwhile, back at the multiplex, after Civil War‘s impressive three-day debut that grossed RMB 625 million ($96 million), its sales plummeted last weekend, taking in just RMB 207 million ($31.7 million) to raise its total to RMB 1.013 billion ($155.8 million) after 10 days in China.

On Sunday, Civil War joined Zootopia as it became Disney’s second film of 2016 to gross more than RMB 1 billion ($153 million) in what is shaping up to be a record year for the studio in China.

Heavy front-loading — or selling most tickets in the first days or release — is par for the course for most superhero movies around the globe. So it’s no big surprise that Civil War ticket sales dropped 62% across all its overseas territories at the weekend. But the film’s collapse in China was more extreme as ticket prices rebounded from cheap, subsidized opening weekend rates and a high-quality pirated version made the rounds on file-sharing sites.

Civil War will end its run well below Avengers: Age of Ultron’s $240 million-in-China total from last summer. The film now has maybe $25 million or $30 million left to squeeze from Chinese cinemas before Angry Birds opens on Friday and Alice Through The Looking Glass on May 27.

Disney’s other China release, The Jungle Book, finished its month-long run on Saturday just shy of RMB 1 billion with RMB 979 million ($150.1 million). It is the fourth-highest-grossing Disney film in China behind Zootopia, Age of Ultron, and now Captain America: Civil War.

All publicly screened films in China — including domestic releases — receive 30-day release licenses, but distribution companies may apply for extensions at a cost. The Jungle Book earned $1.2 million at the box office on its final day indicating demand for the family film still existed.

Even though they may have left some money on the table, Disney’s decision to forego a release extension for The Jungle Book makes sense from a cost-benefit standpoint since the studio successfully lobbied for an expensive two-week extension for Zootopia in April as well as because Angry Birds would poach most of the family moviegoing audience on Friday.

Faced with not one, but two Ryan Reynolds’ films this weekend, Chinese fans chose neither, opting instead to stay home and watch an uncensored version of his banned Deadpool. Those who did shell out at the box office chose Criminal (超脑48小时) (three-day debut of $7.9 million) over Self/less (幻体:续命游戏) (four-day total of $4.1 million), yet both films received middling online reception. Still, Criminal joined The Walk, Gods of Egypt, and London Has Fallen as films from 2016 that have grossed more in their opening weekends in China than in North America.

Unrelated to the public discourse over Song of the Phoenix, indie director Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) told fans from the Cannes Film Festival that he would unveil a Beijing-based online video portal to showcase independent short films from China and across the world.