On Screen China: ‘Doctor Strange’ Arrives with 13 Other Releases

Benedict Cumberbatch could bring joy to China’s box office in November, as Doctor Strange premieres this weekend.


October box office revenue in the world’s current second largest movie market totaled RMB 3.417 billion (US$505 million) according to data compiled by 1905.com, the official website of state-run China Movie Channel.

The monthly haul was down nearly 19 percent from October 2015 and represents the fifth month in 2016 to see slowing box office growth.

With two months remaining, total box office receipts year-to-date sit at RMB 38.7 billion ($5.7 billion), just five percent more than last year through the same 10-month period and a far cry from optimistic projections of RMB 60 billion set at the beginning of the year.

In a last-ditch effort to pad the annual stats, regulators are squeezing in a slew of Hollywood releases this November, essentially abandoning their strict quota of 34 revenue-sharing imported films per year.

This week sees a staggering 14 new releases — both imported and domestic — enter cinemas, but none stand a chance against Disney/Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which is opening on 37 percent of the nation’s screens and will dominate the market with 75 percent-plus of all ticket sales this weekend. Can Marvel’s brand recognition in China and star Benedict Cumberbatch’s unrivaled popularity help light a fire under this year’s slumping box office?

Doctor Strange (奇异博士)

China Distribution – China Film Group Corporation (中国电影集团公司)
US Distribution – Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Claims that permeated Western media of whitewashing and expunging sensitive elements that may have offended China’s touchy regulators have largely been shrugged off by local industry watchers as background noise.

The main drawing force for Chinese moviegoers to Doctor Strange — regardless of Tilda Swinton playing a Celtic mystic instead of a Tibetan one — lies in the familiarity of Marvel’s superhero brand, the star power of Benedict Cumberbatch, and the film’s mind-bending visual effects.

Dating back to 2008 with Iron Man, Disney has been able to release every single film in their Marvel Cinematic Universe on Chinese shores, and even though last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron ($240.1 million) is seen by many as the brand’s box office apex, a considerable fanboy base still exists for anything adorned with the Marvel logo.

Combine that fervor with Chinese moviegoers’ adoration — or perhaps obsession in the case of young female fans — for Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Sherlock: The Abominable Bride grossed two-thirds of its worldwide box office gross from China alone, and breathtaking visuals reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the fourth highest-grossing film of 2010 in China, and you’ve got the recipe for a successful box office performance.

We’re going to temper our expectations somewhat given that Doctor Strange is fresh IP for Chinese audiences, but we still predict an outstanding opening weekend nearing RMB 300 million ($40-$45 million). Ultimately, Doctor Strange should outgross both Ant-Man (RMB 672 million) and Guardians of the Galaxy (RMB 595 million) in local currency and end its run close to RMB 700 million (~$100 million).