Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' opens in theatersSeptember 4, 2020
Hong Kong / Beijing (CNN Business)Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is trying to prove that the box office still has some life left in the age of coronavirus.
The time-travel spy thriller’s debut this weekend in US movie theaters will be closely watched as a barometer of the industry’s health. But it may have a better chance of drawing a crowd in China — a movie market that could soon overtake the United States as the world’s biggest.
Unlike in the United States, where the virus continues to spread largely unchecked, life in China has returned to something approaching pre-pandemic levels of normality, with community transmission almost entirely extinguished.
China — where “Tenet” premiered on Friday — already has a head start over the United States. The country’s cinemas began reopening in July, a month before the United States. (“Tenet” is produced by Warner Bros, which, like CNN, is owned by WarnerMedia.)
The country’s movie theaters have already enjoyed some success since reopening, including with the Chinese war epic “The Eight Hundred.” The film has grossed $277 million in China since its release last month, making it the year’s third-best performing movie, according to Box Office Mojo. The year’s biggest film, “Bad Boys for Life,” hit most movie markets in January before the coronavirus outbreak accelerated, grossing more than $424 million.
The reception of movies like “The Eight Hundred” have shown the “importance of China as a movie market and global box office powerhouse, even within the context of this very challenging marketplace,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
So far, China’s film fanatics seem more than eager to return: The summer movie season brought in more than $500 million in ticket sales, according to the Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan. Nearly 10,000 movie theaters had resumed business by the end of last month.
The “daily box office has been growing steadily,” Maoyan said in a news release last month. “Such rapid recovery in box office not only reveals the potency of pent-up consumer demand for offline movie watching, but also instills strong confidence in movie industry participants.”
That’s good news for a market that was crippled by coronavirus at the worst possible time for the movie industry. In January, the pandemic forced a nationwide shutdown during Lunar New Year, China’s biggest holiday — a time when people are typically flocking to movie theaters.
The six-month shutdown was “very devastating,” said Ying Lou, an independent film producer based in Beijing. She worried that bad box office figures could lead to less investment in future movie projects. “That’s actually a pretty worrying trend, not just for this year.”
“Tenet” could boost sales even further. Ticket sales for the movie in China surpassed 30 million yuan ($4.3 million) Friday. Some theaters have also been building up to the biggest Hollywood release since the pandemic began by showing “Inception” and “Interstellar,” two other Nolan films that dabble in the bending of time and space.
Nolan movies have “traditionally had a lot of draw from [the] Chinese audience,” Lou said. “I think people are going to turn up to the theaters.”
At the Poly International Cinema near Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Friday, more than 60 people lined up for a morning showing of the film, where individual screenings were allowed to operate at half capacity and audiences were required to keep their masks on throughout the film. Later showings were sold out.
“Everyone feels more comfortable, because in Beijing the epidemic is basically over, although people still wear masks,” Jonas Liang, 28, told CNN Business. “Work, including watching movies, has mostly got back to normal.”
Success, though, is relative.
By late August, China’s total box office haul was roughly 4.6 billion yuan ($672 million), according to a report from the analytics firms Gower Street and Comscore. That’s about as much as the country’s top-grossing title “The Wandering Earth” raked in last year, and it’s a whopping 90% behind where overall ticket sales were at the same point last year. (In the week since then, the box office total has ticked up to roughly $833 million, according to the latest Comscore data.)
Even so, Gower Street says that China has already reached the targets the firm created to indicate a post-Covid “full box office recovery.” The company looked at how many cinemas were open in a given market and how much money a country’s box office is pulling in during a given day or week.
Hollywood’s next crack at the Chinese market will come next week, when the long-awaited live-action remake of Disney’s “Mulan” hits theaters.
Analysts have pointed out that the film seems tailor-made for China: It features an international cast and stars a Chinese-born actor, Yifei Liu, as the titular warrior woman who disguises herself as a man to protect her country from invaders.
“‘Mulan’ has always been viewed as a film with immense global potential at the box office, and in particular a movie that will resonate in China,” Dergarabedian said.
— Shanshan Wang contributed to this report.
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