On Screen China: Behind ‘The Revenant’s Fast Trip to Chinese Screens

  • The Revenant is one of very few major Oscar winners to be released in China
  • Actor’s popularity and Chinese financing helped get the DiCaprio vehicle to Chinese screens quickly
  • Zootopia will soon pass the RMB 1 billion mark and become the highest-grossing animation of all time in China
Part of a poster celebrating International Women's Day on March 8 (Courtesy The Revenant official Weibo)

Part of a poster celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8. (Courtesy The Revenant official Weibo)

Walt Disney Animation’s surprise China hit Zootopia (疯狂动物城) will once again trounce the competition at the box office this weekend. Disney’s fable about an unlikely friendship between a perky rabbit and a sly fox currently sits at $136 million, and CFI predicts less than a 50% drop in ticket sales from last weekend’s record-breaking $58 million, which will push Zootopia over RMB 1 billion to make it the highest-grossing animation of all time in China.

Zootopia looks to retain about 25% of China’s total screens — down from a high of 34% last weekend — as it makes a bit of room for two new Hollywood releases on Friday.

The Revenant (荒野 lit. The Wilderness Hunter) enters Chinese cinemas on a wave of buzz surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent Best Actor win at the Academy Awards, while the inspirational sports film Eddie The Eagle (飞鹰艾迪) — much like its real-life protagonist — stumbles way over its head into theaters amid the heavy competition.

Below, CFI takes a look at the box office potential for The Revenant.

The Revenant (荒野)
China Distribution: China Film Group (中国电影集团公司), Bona Film Group
US Distribution: 20th Century Fox

CFI Score: 5/10

It’s rare for Academy Award-winning films to win a coveted import license for screening in China. In the last 25 years, only seven Best Picture winners have been released in Chinese theaters: Forrest Gump (1995), Titanic (1997), Gladiator (2000), The Lord of The Rings: Return of The King (2003), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The King’s Speech (2010)and The Artist (2011).  Even fewer movies that have won a Best Actor have earned the licenses: Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), The King’s Speech (Colin Firth), The Artist (Jean Dujardinand now The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, or “Little Li” (小李子), as he’s affectionately known in China.

The scarcity of public screenings for Oscar winners is due to both their limited commercial potential in the Chinese marketplace as well as in the cultural specificity of the subject matter favored by the Academy. Apart from the handful of traditional award-winning blockbusters imported on a revenue-sharing basis (Gladiator, Lord of the Rings), many of the smaller films simply failed to find an audience, especially if the releases were delayed for a significant period after the initial Oscar buzz subsided.

The Revenant, on the other hand, is striking while the iron is hot. The privately run Bona Film Group acquired the rights as a flat-fee “buy-out film” and announced the March 18 release date right after DiCaprio’s big win. Here are two big reasons why The Revenant is making it China so quickly, just two months after its U.S. debut:

First and foremost, “Little Li” is perhaps unrivaled in his popularity on the mainland, thank to Titanic. Ever since his turn as heartthrob Jack in that film , the phrase “You jump, I jump has been part of the lexicon of just about any Chinese person under the age of 35. And though The Revenant’s 156-minute running time — with a rumored just 30 seconds cut from the original version— and long, sweeping shots of the American frontier will test the patience of DiCaprio’s most loyal Chinese fans, they’ll all be lining up on opening weekend to catch a rare glimpse of their idol acting his heart out on the big screen. To fuel the frenzy, Little Li will also be making his first appearance in China to promote a film when he meets fans in Beijing on Sunday.

Second, The Revenant was partially bankrolled by a Chinese company, Guangdong Alpha Animation and Culture. That connection certainly wouldn’t have hurt the film’s ability to pass unscathed through the opaque and often lengthy process of import approval and censorship.

The big question remains of whether or not any of this will translate to the mainstream acceptance and positive word of mouth needed for the film to have any staying power beyond its first few days of release. CFI predicts a robust second place finish this weekend behind the family-friendly Zootopia, but we don’t imagine Little Li catching fire beyond his legion of curious fans and moviegoers in the globally oriented first- and second-tier cities. Moreover, he won’t survive the bear mauling once Batman v. Superman opens next Friday, March 25.

—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice