China’s two new propaganda films topped the box office over their first weekend in theaters, but it appears that the politically correct content may not prove popular enough to drive sales at blockbuster levels.
Most of the biggest local blockbusters set to hit China over the rest of the year are propaganda titles. Though analysts believe that China will keep its crown as the world’s largest film market this year, some question whether its annual gross may suffer from a surplus of “main melody” political films and fewer Hollywood tentpoles as the U.S. exhibition sector wobbles back on its feet post-COVID.
China’s cumulative box office this weekend was just $44.9 million, down significantly from the comparable weekend of 2019, when Maoyan figures show it hit $120 million. Those heights were made possible by blockbusters “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and Herman Yau Hong Kong actioner “The White Storm 2: Drug Lords,” as well as animations “The Secret Life of Pets 2” and “Spirited Away.”
“1921” was developed as a tribute to the Communist Party on Thursday’s July 1 anniversary of its centenary. It features some of China’s most viral young stars in a bid to pull younger viewers into theaters to take in a slice of state-sanctioned, highly vetted Communist Party history.
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This weekend, star-studded historical propaganda drama “1921” marched to the top of the Chinese box office with only a $21.4 million three-day weekend, according to consultancy Artisan Gateway.
Backed primarily by Tencent Pictures, the film debuted Thursday to a $13 million opening day, and has brought in a cumulative $45.4 million so far, the consultancy said.
In contrast, last October, the omnibus film “My People, My Homeland” — another propaganda film created as a tribute to the Party on the politicized National Day holiday, which also debuted on a Thursday — grossed $125 million its first three-day weekend, despite hitting at a time when audiences remained much more wary of heading back to theaters in the wake of COVID-19.
Despite its potentially lackluster figures, a handful of foreign companies have acquired “1921” for distribution in English-speaking countries such as the U.S. (Smart Cinema) and the U.K. (Trinity Filmed Entertainment), with release dates still up in the air.
In second place this week was fellow tribute film “The Pioneer” from Enlight Pictures, which also had debuted Thursday. It grossed $8.4 million over the weekend, following a softer $2.56 million opening day.
Directed by Xu Zhanxiong (“Wild Grass”), it stars frequent Lou Ye collaborator Zhang Songwen as Communist Party founder Li Dazhao. Former variety show contestant Li Yifeng (“Mr. Six”) appears alongside him as a young Mao Zedong.
The two propaganda films are likely essentially too politically charged to be allowed to become significant bombs. Should they not garner a certain measure of box office success, it would reflect poorly on the Party at a politically key moment.
Unusually, and perhaps telling, the Maoyan ticketing platform declined to put out its forecast for the predicted total cume of either propaganda title — as it typically does within hours of the debut of other films. The Douban platform has also shut off the user ratings function for both films as well, an index that holds considerable sway over whether viewers will choose to attend.
Imax earned $1.5 million from the two political films this weekend, $1.3 million of it hailing from the more popular “1921.”
There were few strong new titles released in June, allowing “1921” and “The Pioneer” to enter the box office fray together with little competition.
Other films among the top five this week were all holdovers.
Although both Taiwanese rom-com “Man in Love” and “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” debuted in China on June 11, the smaller Taiwanese title has proven a bigger hit despite its lower budget and production values.
“Man in Love” came in third place, grossing $3.1 million to bring cume up to $35.5 million, Artisan Gateway said. It was neck and neck this week with “Peter Rabbit,” which also grossed $3.1 million, which brought its cume up to a lower $27.5 million.
In fifth place was track running sports dramedy “On Your Mark,” which earned $1.5 million, and has now grossed a total of $21.1 million.
China’s cumulative box office this weekend was just $44.9 million, down significantly the comparable weekend of 2019, when Maoyan figures show it hit $120 million.
Despite a surge in the earlier part of the year thanks in large part to historically huge Chinese New Year sales, the total national box office for this year is $4.31 billion, down from $4.88 billion at the same point in 2019.
In June of that year, there were six notable foreign releases, including “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “Men in Black: International” “Spirited Away,” “Toy Story 4″ and “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” as well as Japan’s “Doraemon: Nobita’s Chronicle of the Moon” and “Spirited Away (2001).”