China's National Summer Blackout is a Roaring Success

Several times each year China’s film authorities impose blackouts—or ‘domestic film protection periods’, in local parlance—that severely limit the exhibition of foreign films in mainland theaters. The idea is to open up more screen time for Chinese pictures during prime movie-going periods like the New Year’s holiday, October’s Golden Week, and the summer school break, to give local productions a shot at making money without being overwhelmed by Hollywood’s tent-pole movies.

This year’s summer blackout started on June 19th amid worries that this would be a troubled season with a steep drop in attendance and revenue. Hollywood films had enjoyed an excellent winter and spring, amassing record box office grosses. During the four weeks prior to June 19th Chinese films had captured a paltry 10 percent share of domestic ticket revenues. As Jurassic World and San Andreas finished up their runs it was by no means certain that audiences would be interested enough in local movies to keep the momentum going.

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures analysis

Such worries proved to be completely misplaced. After a slow first week and a half, audiences began to show up at the multiplexes as never before. The family animated feature The Monkey King: Hero is Back enjoyed a solid $15.6 million opening weekend in early July, and kept building from there. By its fourth week it had eclipsed the four year-old record of $92 million held by Kung Fu Panda 2 to become the highest grossing animated film in Chinese history. As of this writing Monkey King has now grossed $122 million and it’s still going strong.

Right on the heels of Monkey King came Monster Hunt, a CGI-live action hybrid directed by Shrek the Third director Raman Hui, which debuted to an incredible $108 million gross on its opening 3-day weekend. It needed only 6 additional days to break the $201 million record gross for a locally made film that had been held since 2012 by Lost in Thailand. Monster Hunt has now hauled in over $279 million and looks very likely to surpass the $319 million Transformers 4 earned in 2014 to become the second-highest grossing film ever in China.

And then came Pancake Man. A low-budget superhero comedy spoof starring and directed by Dapeng, a TV comic who had never directed a movie before. Even against the competition of the above-mentioned films, Pancake Man has reached a stunning $161 million gross so far, and will be one of the world’s most profitable films this year.

Among pictures still to be released before the summer blackout ends are To The Fore, a cycling-themed drama starring Eddie Peng, the popular Taiwan-born star; Bride Wars, the remake of the American comedy starring Angelababy and NiNi; and Go Away Mr. Tumor starring Bai Baihe, the Monster Hunt star who is China’s highest grossing actress of 2015.

China is such a hugely important territory that the blackout puts a big dent in Hollywood’s summer profits. But the blackout also creates pent-up demand for the kind of spectacles that only Hollywood can offer, and so Terminator: Genisys (releasing August 23rd), Mission Impossible 5 (September 8th), and Minions (September 13th) are all good bets to break gross over $100 million too once the blackout ends.

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