On Screen China: ‘Panda’ Preview a Warm Spot in Cold Weekend at the Box Office

An advertisement for Kung Fu Panda 3 in Shanghai

An advertisement for Kung Fu Panda 3 in Shanghai. (Courtesy official Weibo account for Kung Fu Panda 3)

Cold weather decimated movie ticket sales in the world’s No. 1 and 2 markets over the weekend, as Winter Storm Jonas buried the U.S. East Coast in record-breaking snowfall, shutting down cinemas in many key markets, and a nationwide cold snap in China plunged temperatures to 30-year lows, compelling would-be moviegoers to huddle instead around their televisions at home.

China’s Friday-Sunday box office totaled just RMB 307 million ($46.7 million), down 38% from last weekend, in the lowest weekend gross of 2016 to date. Admissions fell to 9.4 million, down from 15 million.

Luckily for the depressed market, Kung Fu Panda 3 heated up cinemas on Saturday afternoon, grossing an impressive $6.4 million from only three hours of advance screenings.

Leading bear Po and his team of Kung Fu fighting animals also brought in an average of 52 filmgoers (or 33% of capacity) per screening—the highest attendance of any film this weekend (Star Wars: The Force Awakens averaged 21 admissions per screening). That puts Panda in great position for a record-breaking debut when it goes wide on Friday, January 29.

Cultural website Douban won’t have an official user rating for Panda until its official release, but early social media reaction appears to be mixed-to-positive, with many Douban users posting three- and four-star reviews.

In an industry first, two distinct versions of Kung Fu Panda 3 were animated separately for the U.S. and Chinese markets—one in its original English and one created specifically for Chinese audiences with a localized script performed by a voice cast of high-profile mainland celebrities. Interestingly, both versions are being released in China, and few diehard Panda fans managed to see the two back-to-back on Saturday.

Douban user February Birdcall said the “voice acting was strong in both versions and, surprisingly, Jackie Chan’s voice fit in both as well,”—Chan voices Po’s father in Chinese and Monkey in English—“but I personally thought the Chinese version was better with its localized script. Oriental DreamWorks should be regarded as a successful model for future Sino-U.S. co-productions.”

However, Douban user Xinsheng had trouble staying engaged with the Chinese version because she had seen the first two films in English: “Although the voices matched up perfectly with the animation, something seemed off,” she wrote.

Among other releases, Star Wars: The Force Awakens grossed $8 million, recapturing the weekend’s top spot from local animation Boonie Bears III. The weekend gross for The Force Awakens was way down, however, falling 62% from its performance last weekend. The latest Star Wars sequel has earned $114.3 million to date and is nearing the end of an underwhelming run.

Boonie Bears followed closely in second this weekend with $7 million, pushing its nine-day total to $33 million, while Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk debuted with $6.7 million, helping China become the high-wire adventure film’s highest-grossing overseas territory in just three days.

—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice