On Screen China: 2016 Opens With a Record Weekend

  • Highest grossing weekend in box-office history, up 85% from the same weekend in 2015
  • Mr. Six comes from behind to top the chart
  • Mojin sales lag on piracy concerns

After China’s roaring box office posted nearly 50% growth in 2015 over the previous year, moviegoers in the world’s second largest film market rang in 2016 with more record-shattering numbers.

Revenues for the three-day holiday weekend (元旦节) totaled RMB 849 million ($130 million)—the highest-grossing weekend in box-office history and 85% more than the same period in 2015.

The Monday-to-Sunday box office for the week ending January 3 was led by gritty Beijing crime drama Mr. Six (老炮儿), which earned an additional $66.9 million, pushing its 11-day total to $106 million. (Mr. Six came in second for the holiday weekend behind new release Chinatown Detective.)

Prior to Mr. Six’s release, lead actor Feng Xiaogang (冯小刚) confidently predicted that “its first day at the box office probably wouldn’t be explosive, but after three days it would show its power,” and, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Mr. Six opened on Christmas Eve in third place with just $8.4 million, but steadily began climbing the charts once word of mouth spread on social media. Mr. Six grabbed the top spot on its fifth day of release and reached its peak on New Year’s Day (its ninth day in theaters)with $13.1 million—slow and steady growth as opposed to the start-with-a-bang and end-with-a-fizzle performance typically seen in China.

The success of Mr. Six can be attributed largely to its soaring popularity in Beijing, where the film played on a third of the screens over the holiday and where the cost of a ticket averaged RMB 41.5 ($6.35), more than 30% above the nationwide average for Mr. Six. The film is set mainly within the sleepy labyrinth of Beijing’s hutongs, or alleyways, and Feng’s gruff, no-nonsense Mr. Six has reminded many of the city’s moviegoers of a lost Old Beijing spirit that has been replaced with shiny skyscrapers and fast Ferraris. 

Leading the holiday weekend, but second overall for the full week, was Chinatown Detective (唐人街探案) which grossed $65 million through its first five days. The comedy from actor-turned-director Chen Sicheng (Beijing Love Story) found its audience outside of first-tier cities. Its blend of Hong Kong-style action and comedy made for a strong showing in southern China, where Mr. Six has been less popular.

Following closely on the heels of Mojin—The Lost Legend, Chinatown Detective marked the second straight hit for Wuzhou, the distribution arm of Wanda Pictures. The FX-driven blockbuster Mojin placed third over the weekend with $27.5 million and its box-office receipts stand at $237.1 million, making it the third highest-grossing Chinese language film of all time behind last year’s hits Lost in Hong Kong ($247 million) and Monster Hunt ($373 million).

Although Chinese box-office pundits previously saw potential for Mojin to surpass Monster Hunt‘s revenues, it appears that the film may have become a victim of piracy. Once thought only to affect Hollywood imports that lagged behind their North American releases, these days high quality bootlegs of Chinese blockbusters are turning up as the movies play in theaters.

Screenshot from a video posted to Sina Weibo showing an unauthorized screening of Mojin—The Lost Legend

Screenshot from a video posted to Sina Weibo showing an unauthorized screening of Mojin—The Lost Legend

Recently, an anonymous resident of an unknown city snapped a short video of Mojin being screened to customers shopping at a branch of Suning (苏宁), China’s largest electronics appliance retail chain (partly owned by Alibaba Group)  and the post was widely circulated through the popular Weibo social media platform. Both Mojin director Wu Ershan and Wanda Pictures strongly condemned the store’s actions via social media before Weibo removed the video.

— Follow Jonathan Papish @ChinaBoxOffice