On Screen China: Gamer’s Delight — ‘Resident Evil’ vs. ‘Assassin’s Creed’

“Has the Chinese market become a dumping ground for Hollywood’s trash?” wondered a recent Beijing Daily headline, a question both apt and timely.

Last summer’s computer game fantasy adaptation, Warcraft, produced by Dalian Wanda-owned Legendary Pictures, with financing from heavyweights China Film Group, Tencent, and Huayi Brothers, skyrocketed to $220 million to become China’s third highest-grossing picture of 2016. Pummeled by critics stateside, it grossed a forgettable $47.3 million in the US.

Currently in Chinese theaters, the high-octane action sequel xXx: The Return of Xander Cage has made RMB 959 million ($139.6 million) in ticket sales through Thursday, February 23, while falling on hard times in North America with only $44.4 million.

The reasons behind these huge box office discrepancies in the world’s two largest film industries are largely cultural and historical. In the early years after China opened its market to Hollywood imports in 1994, moviegoing choices were limited , and the majority of films reaching theaters were so-called dàpiàn (大片), a word that became synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters.

Chinese audiences, especially those in lower-tier cities with less-mature moviegoing tastes, to this day still seek out Hollywood films for non-stop action, balls-to-the-wall visual effects, and uncomplicated plots. Add in a hyperactive cyberculture. where young Chinese males wile away hours playing fantasy RPG’s in crowded internet cafes, and the old saw about one person’s trash being another’s treasure begins to make sense for movies like Warcraft, xXx, and Transformers.

Two video game adaptations that faltered in their North American releases — Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ($40 million budget, $26.5 million NA gross) and Assassin’s Creed ($125 million budget, $54.6 million NA gross) — enter cinemas this weekend in hopes of becoming the next piece of “Hollywood trash” to pile up the Chinese box office receipts.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (生化危机:终章)

China Distribution – Leomus Pictures (狮鼠影业)
US Distribution – Screen Gems (Sony Pictures)

A month-long wait from its North American release and news that censors slashed seven minutes from the original version have not dampened Chinese moviegoers’ enthusiasm for the sixth and final chapter in the long-running action/horror series starring Milla Jovovich.

The fervor appears to be tied to the film being billed as the “final chapter,” with a strong sense of nostalgia in fans wanting one last thrill ride before bidding farewell to the 16-year-old series.

Pre-sales for opening day are rivaling Captain America: Civil War, and while the fan-driven film is likely to be heavily front-loaded à la Warcraft, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter has its sights set on an opening weekend in the RMB 450-500 million range ($65-70 million). Look for a finish near RMB 1 billion ($150 million), five times more than its North American total and likely half of its worldwide haul.

Assassin’s Creed (刺客信条)

China Distribution – China Film Group (中国电影集团公司)
US Distribution – 20th Century Fox

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the two-and-a-half month lag for the Chinese release of Assassin’s Creed has put a significant dent in its box office potential. Negative fan reaction reached Chinese shores well before Fox could ramp up local marketing. Coupled with the recent leak of a hard-coded South Korean HD-quality bootleg and its head-on opening weekend collision with Resident Evil, that may spell doom for the Michael Fassbender-Marion Cotillard-starrer. Assassin’s Creed will clinch the weekend in a distant second-place with RMB 150 million ($22 million) on its way to a RMB 250-300 million finish ($35-$40 million).