Star Trek Beyond just not so boldly went where many, many Hollywood blockbusters have before – to China to beg for financial salvation. Whether or not that salvation will truly come remains to be seen, but Beyond is off to a good start, raking in $31.3 million from its Middle Kingdom debut.
Star Trek Beyond Box Office As of 9/5/16
Well, that’s all fine and good, but is $31.3m from China really some sort of victory?
Um, maybe? $31.3m is 107% above Star Trek Into Darkness‘ opening frame ($25.8m) in China 3 years ago.
Yeah, but China’s box office has grown by like a billion times in the short 3 years since then. Is a mere 107% improvement over a 2013 total really good enough?
Um, probably? Here’s the thing: China just had its worst summer box office season in 5 years. [The following is a bit of an oversimplification, but just go with it] Used to be, when we made shit movies Chinese audiences still embraced them because in the grand scheme of things they are still relatively new to getting so many Hollywood movies in their country. This summer, though, China finally started saying, “Man, these movies sure are shit.” Thus, 2016’s poor box office performers in the US/Canada turned into poor box office performers in China as well (except for Warcraft, which China just couldn’t get enough of).
The tide at the Chinese box office has only just started to turn, with films like Jason Bourne and Ice Age: Collision Course doing perfectly well for themselves, even though the former was soundly criticized in the region for an especially poor, nausea-inducing 3D transfer. Such criticisms didn’t stop Bourne from making $49.8m in its first 6 days.
With all of that mind, Beyond‘s opening looks all the more encouraging. Consider this: Bourne reached nearly $50m in 6 days, $23m of which came from its opening weekend. With Beyond coming in at $31m for the weekend, imagine where it could be 3 days from now. Might it eclipse Into Darkness‘ China total ($57m) that fast?
Just tell me this: Will Beyond make enough in China to guarantee a Star Trek 4?
Let me get back to you on that one.
Oh, come on, man. Have some balls. Give me a straight answer.
Look, this shit is super complicated with so many unknown variables (e.g., How much did they spend on marketing?; What kind of ticket sales split did they negotiate with the theaters around the world?; Did any of the actors have front-end or back-end talent participation deals?). Plus, there is so much more going on at Paramount right now than just Star Trek. Who’s to say for sure Brad Grey will even still be in charge of the studio by the time Beyond leaves theaters. For all we know, Paramount could be purchased outright by some Chinese company by the end of the year. The last I heard, Wanda was trying to buy 100% of the studio while the Viacom board was countering with, “Yeah, what if you just bought 49%. That way we’d still be in charge. Can you please just give us your money and then go away?”
Moreover, Paramount’s not even completely on the hook for Beyond. That insanely high $185m budget for the film was partially financed through SkyDance Productions (David Ellison’s production company which has a deal with Paramount) and two Chinese companies with plans of global film domination (Alibaba Pictures, the production arm of Jack Ma’s e-commerce giant, and Huahua Media, a fast-growing marketing entity).
And Paramount and its investors surely shudder when they see charts like this:
Those are the 7 biggest international markets Beyond opened in at the same time as its domestic debut, and it has flamed out in almost all of them, at least compared to Into Darkness. Over the past two weeks, Beyond has expanded to several significant territories like South Korea, France and Spain, but the “falls short of Into Darkness” pattern has persisted in each one.
Obviously, Beyond bucked that trend in China. However, it also debuted in big territories like Mexico and Brazil this weekend. Neither country was a major player for Into Darkness, which netted less than $7m from each. Beyond won’t do much better than that, if at all.
So, really, it’s pretty much down to China and the $10m-$20m combined total Beyond might haul in from Mexico, Brazil and Japan, which won’t join the party until 10/21. With all of that, Beyond could conceivably reach a figure which satisfies the “Did it double its production budget at the worldwide box office?” rule of thumb for profitability. For example, Beyond is projected to earn $105m in China. Add in the extra earnings from Mexico, Brazil and Japan and you end up with the type of budget-to-gross comparison where if you squint real hard you might be able to convince yourself that the film made out okay.
But, frankly, we’re lucky to even be having this debate because despite all the box office accolades you can throw at Into Darkness (e.g., highest worldwide gross in franchise history) it still barely came out on top in the ole “Did it double its production budget?” game. Plus, it didn’t exactly make up for that on the home video market the same way the ’09 Star Trek did.
The fact that Paramount made a sequel at a nearly identical budget level ($190m vs. $185m) and hired a proven blockbuster director (Justin Lin) to take over clearly indicates they thought Into Darkness‘ international growth meant the franchise was on the verge of a true breakthrough into genuine blockbuster territory. They thought wrong. As such, whether or not Beyond breaks even with China’s help is beside the point. Paramount wanted this to hit in a big, big way, and it just didn’t. If there is to be a Star Trek 4, it had better come in at a much lower budget, and while it’s difficult to imagine Paramount giving up on the franchise completely you can’t say anything about Paramount with any degree of certainty right now. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but at least thanks to China the decision might be a little easier to make, if just barely. In fact, give this a couple of months and China could be the ones directly deciding Star Trek’s future as the new owners of Paramount, despite whatever the Redstones (Summer and his daughter) are saying right now about wanting to hold on to the studio.