China Box Office: February and ‘The Mermaid’ Smash Records

  • Holiday pushed monthly box office to beat the U.S. for only the second time ever
  • January-February gross up 57% from 2015
  • Market on track to pass $9 billion this year, rapidly closing gap with U.S. 
The Mermaid director Stephen Chow with fans in southern China. (Courtesy The Mermaid official Weibo)

The Mermaid director Stephen Chow with fans in southern China. (Courtesy The Mermaid official Weibo)

China’s monthly box office topped the United States’ for just the second time in history in February, bolstered by a trio of homegrown Lunar New Year blockbusters. Leading the way was Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, which on Friday, February 27 became the first film ever to hit the RMB 3 billion mark at the box office.

Monthly ticket sales reached RMB 6.87 billion ($1.05 billion), blowing through the previous monthly record set in July 2015 (RMB 5.5 billion), and easily outpacing North America’s estimated February total of $800 million. This marks the first time that China’s box office has surpassed the North American total (which includes Canada) and only the second time that China has outgrossed the U.S. The last time was February 2015, when China’s gross was $650 million, while the U.S. box office was $640 million and North America’s $710 million.

2015&2016 Daily Comparison(Feb)

After two months, China’s 2016 box office revenue stands at RMB 10.71 billion ($1.63 billion), representing a staggering 57% increase over the same period last year, and on pace for annual haul of RMB 60 billion ($9.16 billion).

The end of month saw a considerable slowdown for theaters as students went back to school after a long holiday break on February 23, but The Mermaid maintained its dominance as it glided past the RMB 3 billion mark. The oddball romantic eco-comedy from Hong Kong director Stephen Chow has grossed $480.9 million in the three weeks since its release, according to data from Shanghai research firm Artisan Gateway, and will soon become only the seventh film in worldwide movie history to hit half a billion dollars in a single territory, and the first to do so outside of North America (see table below).

[table id=7 /]

The Mermaid has garnered glowing reviews in both China and the West. It boasted the highest per theater average of any film in North America for the second straight weekend, despite almost zero publicity from the film’s US distributer Sony International.

Feb 22-Feb 28 Daily

Behind The Mermaid, China’s two other February behemoths continued their impressive runs — The Monkey King 2 pulled in $19.2 million for the week, lifting its total to $176.9 million, while From Vegas To Macau 3 slowed to $12.9 million and a $166.3 million cume.

Last weekend’s newcomer Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny earned $15.2 million from Monday to Sunday, though its weekend ticket sales plummeted 77% following an atrocious critical and public reception.  The sequel to what is still the highest-grossing foreign language film in North America has taken in a modest $36.3 million in China and will all but fade from cinemas on Friday with the eagerly anticipated premiere of Ip Man 3.

And despite a fumbled release date decision by Oriental DreamWorks Animation to debut its tentpole animation ten days before the New Year holiday (one of the least popular moviegoing periods on the calendar), Kung Fu Panda 3 limped past Monkey King: Hero is Back to become the highest-grossing animation of all-time in China, with $149.3 million to date.

Panda Po and his kung fu fighting cohorts also received a rare month-long release extension from Chinese film regulators, but the film won’t add much more to its current total after Disney Animation’s Zootopia opens on Friday, March 4.

—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice

[Updated at 9:58am ET on March 1, 2016. An earlier version of this story stated that The Mermaid would be the sixth film in history to gross $500 million in a single territory; it will be the seventh. The accompanying chart has been revised to include Jurassic World, which was previously omitted.]