‘Warcraft‘ Windfall a Watershed Moment for Hollywood in China

  • Warcraft grossed RMB 1.0275 B ($156M) in its 5-day debut
  • Premiere of RMB 301M almost double entire North American opening weekend
  • CFI predicts final Warcraft gross below $250M 
Yao Ming, former NBA basketball star (seated, front row left), poses with Chinese "World of Warcraft" fans outside a screening of the movie Warcraft (Source: Weibo)

Yao Ming, former NBA basketball star (seated, front row left), poses with Chinese “World of Warcraft” fans outside a screening of the movie Warcraft (Source: Weibo)

For years now, Hollywood has been stressing the importance of the international box office — especially the booming Chinese box office — over a stagnating domestic industry which has seen little growth in the past five years. This weekend could be the watershed moment in Hollywood’s global-minded philosophy.

Released by Universal Pictures and Legendary Entertainment — itself now owned by Chinese real estate giant Dalian Wanda — and backed by powerful financial Chinese partners Tencent, China Film Group, and Huayi Brothers, Warcraft grossed RMB 1.0275 billion ($156.0 million) in its 5-day debut.

Remarkably Warcraft’s opening day total of RMB 301 million ($45.7 million) on Wednesday was almost double the film’s entire opening weekend in North America where it debuted with a disappointing $24.3 million.

China is home to an estimated one-half of the globe’s subscribers to the video game on which the film was based, “World of Warcraft.” It seemed as if most of them ventured out of their lairs into midnight Tuesday and opening-day-Wednesday Warcraft screenings.

By the end of the holiday weekend in China, Universal and Legendary were able to claim several box office records for Warcraft, including the all-time biggest five-day opening, topping Disney’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the fastest imported film to hit RMB 1 billion, beating Furious 7 by just a few hours.

However, that’s where the comparisons to Furious 7 — the highest grossing imported film of all-time in China, with $380 million — need to stop.

Along with drops in ticket sales of more than 30% on each successive day after its opening, average attendance for Warcraft plummeted throughout the holiday from 93 moviegoers per screening from midnight Tuesday to just 31 per screening by Saturday, the last day of the Dragon Boat Festival, and a lowly 19 on Sunday, when everybody went back to work.

Warcraft’s demographics skewed unsurprisingly male, and with nearly two out of every three tickets sold to young men between the ages of 20-30, the film was unable to break out with a general audience in the same way Furious 7 did.

All of this data then points to a massively front-loaded run for Warcraft in China — one that goes off with a bang but then fizzles quickly. The Chinese media dub this phenomenon 高开低走 (gāo kāi dī zǒu, or, literally, “high start low go”) and the phrase usually is reserved for films that are critically maligned yet still succeed at the box office thanks to a passionate, vocal fan base.

Most notably, the Tiny Times series about the dramatic lives of affluent Shanghai girls falls into this category. Tiny Times’ four installments racked up RMB 1.8 billion ($275 million) despite universal criticism aimed at their vapid, materialistic themes.

Chinese moviegoers disinterested in the hype surrounding Warcraft took to social media to ridicule the film and its supporters: “Hey Warcraft lovers! Compared with Tiny Times’ fans, where exactly does this superiority complex come from?” asked one.

Warcraft will have one more weekend of relatively light competition before Hollywood import Independence Day: Resurgence invades theaters on Friday, June 24. Warcraft will lead the daily box office until then, but observers likely will be shocked by how severely Warcraft drops from the radar in the next 10 days as its fan base is completely exhausted. CFI is now predicting a final gross below $250 million, and depending on Warcraft’s hold next weekend, Disney’s Zootopia has a shot at holding onto the top imported film slot of the year.