On Screen China: A Tough ‘Walk’ Between the Force and the Panda

A young Chinese fan feels what it’s like to tightrope a hundred stories above the ground in VR at the premiere of The Walk in Beijing. (Mtime)

A young Chinese fan feels what it’s like to tightrope a hundred stories above the ground in VR at the premiere of The Walk in Beijing. (The Walk official Mtime page)

The coming weekend at the Chinese box office is shaping up to be a veritable dumping ground of middling films dubbed by the Chinese press as “cannon fodder” (炮灰 pàohuī), films that are being pushed out between the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens two weeks ago and the much anticipated January 29 wide release of Kung Fu Panda 3.

Ten films will open this weekend, but current rankings on the box office charts should remain basically unchanged from last weekend. The two films that stand to shake things up are director Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, opening on Friday, about an early 1970s death-defying wire walk between the two towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, and Kung Fu Panda 3 in limited Saturday afternoon previews.

Below, China Film Insider dissects The Walk’s box office potential using several key metrics.(We will forecast Kung Fu Panda 3’s chances in next Thursday’s On Screen China.)

The Walk (云中行走 Yún Zhōng Xíngzǒu lit. “Walking In The Clouds”)

Distribution: China Film Group Corp. (中国TK影集TK公司)

Buzz – 2/10

Bucking the recent trend for Hollywood releases in China, The Walk has no official Weibo or WeChat account, and as a result, there is virtually no online buzz ahead of its release. Sony isn’t sending Zemeckis and the cast to China for a red-carpet premiere or Chinese media appearances. Perhaps the studio exhausted its Middle Kingdom marketing budget on the November release of Spectre.

The little marketing that did target the Chinese audience came just this past week with a videotaped greeting from star Joseph Gordon-Levitt to would-be Chinese moviegoers, and a limited edition Chinese-language poster.

Audience – 3/10

Given The Walk’s limited mainstream genre appeal and special effects that serve a story outside the realm of interest of most inland moviegoers, we anticipate upwards of two-thirds of the film’s box office revenue to come from first- and second-tier cities, basically the Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Shenzhen crowd.

In terms of genre, the closest Hollywood comparison would be Everest, which grossed $15.5 million in China in November, though The Walk’s final tally will be hindered without a corresponding release on IMAX screens. Those giants currently are monopolized by The Force Awakens.

Release Date – 2/10

The Walk will have just one week to run before Kung Fu Panda 3 invades cinemas next Friday, and Oriental DreamWorks’ decision to run three hours of Panda preview screenings this Saturday afternoon will significantly cut into The Walk’s first weekend total.

The China release date also comes nearly three months after The Walk premiered in North America, so HD bittorrent downloads are widely available online.

Star Power – 3/10

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (囧瑟夫) is well known in China from his roles in The Dark Knight Rises ($51.5 million) and Inception ($70.2 million), but isn’t likely to conjure a big enough following by himself to make much of an impact at the box office.

CFI Score – 3/10

The Walk earned critical praise in the U.S.A. but teetered to just $10.1 million at the North American box office and $44.9 million worldwide, failing to reach a wide audience.

CFI predicts a similar outcome in China, where moviegoers in first- and second-tier cities will find the story and 3D FX captivating, but Chinese in the interior could blink and miss its appearance in their local cinemas. However, we do anticipate China becoming the film’s highest grossing overseas territory, and matching or perhaps surpassing North America’s lackluster total.

And given that The Walk had an estimated production budget of $35 million in addition to P&A costs, China may indeed help Sony salvage it as a profitable film.

—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice