On Screen China: Tom Hanks Returns to China This Weekend with ‘Inferno’

Hollywood’s most American actor makes his first of two appearances on China cinema screens this weekend, beginning with Inferno.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones star in Columbia PIctures’ “Inferno.”


Last weekend’s Chinese box office performance may have turned heads, with Jason Statham’s Mechanic: Resurrection handily outgrossing Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back — to the point that Resurrection in China will ultimately double its North American gross and Never Go Back won’t even match its predecessor’s 2013 total. But the industry’s big news was the Chinese film bureau’s apparent loosening of its strict imported film quota.

Regulators are flooding November with Hollywood releases, raising the usual 34 revenue-sharing titles per year to 39 at current count, in a seemingly last-ditch effort to bolster sagging annual box office revenue.

After nearly 50 percent growth last year and record box office numbers in the early months of 2016, analysts were quick to set RMB 60 billion (US$8.8 billion) as an attainable goal for the year.

But a combination of flagging movie-going interest due to lower quality films, disappearing ticket subsidies, and the eventual leveling off after years of unbridled box office growth (much like what China’s GDP has seen in recent years) has forced observers to significantly scale back that target. RMB 50 billion ($7.4 billion) is the new target, but even that may be difficult to hit.

Starting last weekend and spanning all the way to the weekend of December 9, 11 Hollywood films are set for release, including director Ron Howard’s Inferno and DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls hitting Chinese screens this Friday, October 28.

Inferno (但丁密码)

China Distribution – China Film Group Corporation (中国电影集团公司)
US Distribution – Columbia Pictures (Sony)

Dan Brown’s 2003 mystery novel The Da Vinci Code was an unprecedented hit in China, just as it was elsewhere around the globe, and director Ron Howard’s film adaptation three years later struck a similar chord with Chinese moviegoers. The movie was actually released in China even before its world premiere in Cannes and finished with RMB 106 million, the highest-grossing imported film of 2006 and the third-highest grossing film overall, behind Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet (RMB 130 million) and Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower (RMB 291 million).

However, The Da Vinci Code’s impressive run lasted just 22 days, as regulators unexpectedly pulled the film from theaters fearing public unrest after calls from Chinese Catholics to boycott the film. Reports cited a group of Catholics in the city of Handan in Hebei Province threatening to burn down a theater that planned to show the film, but film regulators at the time downplayed political and religious reasons for the ban, instead citing “commercial reasons amidst declining ticket sales.”

Still, the surrounding controversy must have been fresh in officials’ minds, since Howard’s sequel Angels & Demons didn’t receive a Chinese release in 2009.

Seven years on, commercial motivations seem to have trumped any other considerations and Inferno is receiving a day-and-date release with North America.

Star Tom Hanks, a well-known actor in China since his Oscar-winning turn as Forrest Gump, last graced Chinese screens three and a half years ago in Cloud Atlas, which grossed an impressive RMB 171 million ($27.7 million), with local luminary Zhou Xun co-starring. It seems unlikely though that his star power will boost Inferno’s box office potential to the heights of The Da Vinci Code given the current market’s ambivalence towards suspense films, as well as its shift towards a younger demographic.

Inferno will easily win the weekend with around RMB 135 million ($20 million), but we can’t imagine it will have the legs to compete with the flood of other imported releases in November. In fact, the tight scheduling all but assures steep second-weekend drop-offs throughout the month as films fight for limited screen share and cannibalize each other. RMB 250 million ($37 million) tops.

Trolls (魔发精灵)

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

An odd choice for release given China’s preference for cute and cuddly animated characters over…well, trolls (films from the Shrek franchise don’t even count in the top 25 highest-grossing animation features), Trolls is also based on a toy brand that is completely unfamiliar to the Chinese public.

This one is headed for an ugly weekend finish, way behind Inferno, holdover Operation Mekong, and local new release Mr. Donkey. Trolls will end its run with RMB 70 million ($10 million) total at most.