China Box Office: ‘Soul’ Holds Its Own as Lunar New Year Pre-Sales Soar

Rebecca Davis
·5-min read

In China’s second quiet weekend in a row with no notable new releases, Disney/Pixar’s “Soul” continued to hold its own, managing a sixth place finish after 45 days in theaters as local consumers looked ahead to the blockbuster bonanza of the upcoming Chinese New Year.

The key week-long holiday, which runs from Feb. 12 to 17 this year, typically accounts for nearly 10% of China’s annual national box office. It is of particular note in 2021, now that China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest film market while also remaining one of the only territories worldwide where ticket sales have notably rebounded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In a weekend where no film earned more than $5 million, “Soul” grossed $1.71 million to bring its China cume up to $56 million, according to industry data source Maoyan — exceeding the firm’s most optimistic early projections. The Pete Docter-directed title has now officially surpassed the $51.5 million earnings of Pixar’s 2018 “The Incredibles 2” to become the studio’s second highest grosser in the country. (It still ranks far below “Coco,” however, which grossed $189 million there in 2017.)

Leading the box office this week was the resurgent Andy Lau-starring actioner “Shock Wave 2,” which swept into the opening left by a near total lack of competition to earn another $4.86 million, more than a month after its Christmas release. It has now grossed $196 million.

On its tail was the popular family drama “A Little Red Flower,” which rode the appeal of its star, TFBoy idol Jackson Yee (“Better Days”) to gross a further $4.6 million, bringing its cumulative sales since its New Year’s eve debut up to $216 million.

To put their success in context and highlight just how much further China’s box office has recovered compared to North America’s, both films have grossed more than five times the domestic total for “Wonder Woman 1984,” and scores of millions more than its global earnings.

Meanwhile, local comedy “Big Red Envelope” came in third with $4.3 million in sales, bringing its sum to $32.8 million. “Wish Dragon” — the animation from Sony Pictures Animation, China-based production firm Base Animation, Beijing Sparkle Roll Media and Tencent Pictures — came in fourth, earning $2.32 million. It eked out ahead of fifth place holdover comedy “Warm Hug,” which grossed $2.12 million.

China’s theatrical releases remain in a lull as the market anticipates the highly competitive Lunar New Year release window, since any films hitting screens now would get immediately lost in the roar of business set to begin on Feb. 12, when seven new tentpoles will vie for attention.

More than $62 million (RMB400 million) in pre-sales tickets have been sold since they went up on Jan. 29. An impressive $54 million (RMB350 million) are for the single day of Feb. 12 — Chinese New Year’s day, typically spent at home with family.

Leading the pack by a large and growing margin is Chen Sicheng’s mystery-comedy franchise film “Detective Chinatown 3,” which was supposed to have released last Chinese New Year but got pushed back when cinemas abruptly shut due to COVID-19.

The film set a record as the fastest film to exceed RMB100 million ($15.5 million) of pre-sales, hitting the mark in just 36 hours. It currently makes up nearly 90% of the country’s total holiday pre-sale tally, having already sold tickets worth $54.4 million (RMB352 million).

The second most popular film is the time travel-themed comedy “Hi, Mom,” starring, written and directed by female triple threat Jia Ling. It has sold $11.2 million (RMB72.5 million) in pre-sales so far.

Most agree with Tsinghua University professor and vice chairman of the Chinese Film Association Yin Hong, who told the China Daily that overall, “this year’s Spring Festival release window will further drive the recovery of the Chinese film industry.”

Predictions, however, are mixed for how this year’s sales will measure up to years past. In 2018, the holiday generated $892 million (RMB5.77 billion) in sales, or 9.5% of China’s total annual box office. In 2019, sales amounted to $912 million (RMB5.9 billion), or $9.2% of the annual total.

The impact of COVID-19 remains an unpredictable factor.

On Jan. 27, the Chinese government dictated that even in areas at low risk for COVID-19, cinemas and other performance venues must operate at 75% capacity during the holiday. As of Sunday, authorities had flagged 10 regions as at “high risk” and 49 regions as at “medium risk” for further COVID-19 outbreaks, with theaters in some high-risk areas forced to shut or operate under even greater restrictions. For example, cinemas in parts of Hebei, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces have been closed temporarily, while max theater capacity has been lowered to just 50% in parts of Beijing.

The Chinese New Year typically marks the world’s largest annual human migration, as rural workers in urban centers return home to visit family. But this year will be unusual, with China’s ministry of transport estimating a drop of more than 40% in holiday travel from 2019 as different regions restrict and discourage “non-essential” trips.

“This year, they’re recommending spending the new year in place, which means that cinemas in tier 1 and 2 cities could see a boost in business, while those in tier 3 and 4 cities may see a slump,” Zhang Miao, marketing manager at Beijing Guanganmen Theater, predicted to the China Daily. “Another important, unavoidable factor is the pandemic, which is bound to affect cinema operations in mid- and high-risk regions.”

While the cancellations of tourism and other leisure plans might lead to a boost in movie-going, concerns about the safety of going into the theaters still linger and could cause a dampening effect, Zhang noted. “Due to the current restrictions still on cinemas, some viewers are still holding back, and their doubts could affect [sales] performance.”

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