Jack White once sang, “Bring out your junk and we’ll give it a home, A broken trumpet or a telephone, Come on and give it to me.” At the time, he was slyly referring to his knack for brilliantly repurposing trash culture and discarded old songs, but it’s an apt anthem right now for the way China seems to react to Hollywood movies. What we view as junk movies have a clear home in China, and for the second time this month a movie which flopped here has turned into a massive hit over there. First, it was xXx: Return of Xander Cage ($152m in China vs. $44m domestic). Now, it’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ($93m opening in China vs. $26m for its entire domestic run).
It’s a familiar narrative by now, but this is a more extreme case than usual. Resident Evil actually posted China’s largest Friday-to-Sunday opening of all time for an imported film. That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds since movies like Furious 7 and Age of Ultron had bigger openings, but they didn’t come out in a traditional Friday-to-Sunday window. Still, Resident Evil is now a Chinese box office record holder.
Just to add a little more context, this movie:
Has now made more in China than this movie:
It’s like…it’s like…it’s like China’s an entirely different country with a unique culture of its own or something.
Oh, yeah. That’s exactly what it is.
Still, Resident Evil? Really? Why, out of all possible movies, is this the one to make over $90m in China in its first 3 days? How did it even get released in China? Doesn’t the Chinese government block the distribution of any and all movies containing ghosts or supernatural elements? Isn’t that why Ghostbusters, several of the Harry Potter movies, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Crimson Peak never made it into China?
ChinaFilmInsider has an explanation, although we first must understand the history here:
In the early years after China opened its market to Hollywood imports in 1994, moviegoing choices were limited , and the majority of films reaching theaters were so-called dàpiàn (大片), a word that became synonymous with Hollywood blockbusters.
Chinese audiences, especially those in lower-tier cities with less-mature moviegoing tastes, to this day still seek out Hollywood films for non-stop action, balls-to-the-wall visual effects, and uncomplicated plots. Add in a hyperactive cyberculture. where young Chinese males wile away hours playing fantasy RPG’s in crowded internet cafes, and the old saw about one person’s trash being another’s treasure begins to make sense for movies like Warcraft, xXx, and Transformers.
Sure. Fine. But what specifically was it about Resident Evil that launched it into the Chinese stratosphere? Assassin’s Creed also came out in China this past weekend, and it flopped with a mere $17.2m. So, it can’t be as simple as “They just love themselves some video games.”
It isn’t quite that simple, but the video game culture does play a role in all of this. Like it or not, Resident Evil movies have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, making it the most successful video game film franchise. The two most recent Resident Evil movies – 2012’s Retribution and 2010’s Aftermath – actually were released in China (grossing just under $40m combined), and the rest have been heavily bootlegged. As such, for many the pull of coming out for Final Chapter to see the franchise’s swan song proved too irresistible.
And Sony leveraged its partnerships in the region to stage a compelling marketing campaign. As THR noted, “Local marketing specialist Leomus Pictures handled an innovative ad campaign that involved tapping local social media influencers to create Resident Evil fan art campaigns and working with domestic branding partners.” Moreover, Dalian Wanda Group, the country’s largest cinema operator and a strategic partner with Sony, granted Final Chapter a stunning 100,000 total showings across the entire country.
Resident Evil also likely benefited from being a supernatural movie at a time when many in China are longing for more of that kind of content, even if it must always go through the Chinese sensors (e.g., the censors cut 7 minutes out of Final Chapter). As ChinaFilmInsider explained:
But while Chinese officials dither [with censorship in the face of more and more calls to simply implement a proper ratings system] nearby competitors are getting the jump on the Chinese film industry. That reality was driven home last year when South Korean zombie extravaganza Train To Busan shot to box office success, not only in its home country but in Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Despite not making it to Chinese cinemas screens, the buzz prompted mainland viewers to illegally download it in droves and sparked soul-searching about the state of Chinese film within the industry.
“Imagine if industry insiders were more respectful of movies, censorship was more tolerant and we used Train to Busan as our standard, it wouldn’t be hard for us to produce a Train to Beijing or ‘Train to Shanghai,’” lamented one influential film movie media outlet on its WeChat page at the time. “Good films should not be forced to stay in hard drives.”
And while Final Chapter probably isn’t a good film at least it wasn’t forced to say in a hard drive.