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Deep Dive: Understanding the Chinese Summer Box Office

Here’s the thing, this isn’t that complicated of a topic to understand. It *is* more of a passion project on my part to report box office success more than anything anyone actually asked to dissect or analyze. But with the pandemic still ravaging the industry and literally changing the way we consume media, outlets and headlines have been running with un-contextualized versions of events surrounding the China box office and the films that are released there.

It’s important to explain a few key factors very few outlets (like Deadline only focusing on Simu Liu’s comments instead of the overall box office understanding) and articles seem to care to include. In order to fully understand just what is going on with the overseas box office, we have to first accept a very difficult concept: Hollywood and American film is NOT the center of the universe, and there are a number of fully-realized film industries that exist across the globe. These industries are full of their own celebrities, prominent actors, genres, and filmmakers. I know it’s hard to believe, but American films are a fraction of the global box office.

While American films may be a huge worldwide industry, recognizing it’s not the end all be all- and that films are released constantly in their respective countries to both critical and box office acclaim- is important when looking at how the Chinese box office and how American films are released there. China is one example of a film industry that operates successfully and completely independently of American film. In order to really grasp this concept, we have to understand that OUR films are guest appearances on an existing roster of film releases, many of which will generate millions of dollars without ever being released in the US. The global box office haul is one of many factors to determine the health of an overall film, but it is mainly a US problem and not so much a global, international business one.

Take for example, the top grossing films of 2021. 3 out of the top 10 highest grossing films of the year belong to Chinese exclusive films, none of which have been released in the US. “Hi, Mom” ranks as the number one film of the year with a box office haul of $848 million.

To put this success into perspective, “F9” which has had a global release (including China) trails this unheard of film by well over $130 million. Let that sink in: The most successful American film of 2021 trails an unheard of, Chinese release picture, by triple digit millions. Even more shocking? Holding strong at number 3 is “Detective Chinatown 3” grossed $686 million, trailing “F9” by a little less than $25 million. What all of this says is that the US Film Industry needs the Chinese box office while the Chinese box office doesn’t need the US.

So now that we’ve removed the mindset of American film being the center of everything, we can begin to recognize why the Chinese box office is so important to the health and profitability of American films. This is why so many outlets have focused on which films have yet to receive a release in China without taking into account WHY these major blockbusters haven’t hit the most coveted market across the globe. Yes, it’s true that some major, big budget films like “Shang-Chi” and “Black Widow” have yet to receive a release date with “Free Guy” getting a late August date and a number of other highly anticipated films awaiting Chinese approval.

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What often gets lost in the speculation and alarm bells that outlets (like CNBC failing to mention the elongated Chinese celebration) keep screaming about is that July and August are almost ALWAYS quiet months for American films in China. Why? Because China hosts their own country wide Communist party celebration in film during the summer. No one seems to want to talk about this, but our big summer blockbuster season in the US is China’s own celebration. It is almost always a blackout period for any film that isn’t apart of the Chinese film industry, with most films that do well here often getting late August or September releases.

The pandemic also works to elongate the time period with which China has hosted its own country celebration and also give the green light to US films. Most outlets fail to mention not just this annual celebration, but also how common it is for China to stay the releases of American films during the summer months. Make no mistake: we are at the mercy of THEIR box office, and release schedule, and it rarely has anything to do with the quality of the film queued up for global market release.

So no, “Black Widow” isn’t a bad film unworthy of a Chinese Market release. It simply came out in the middle of their own country celebration, and the reshuffling of its release also impacts when and how the film is released globally. It may not get a release in China, but that has more to do with seasonality and their own box office operations than it does with the quality of the film.

The overall point is to always put things into the context especially when we’re talking about global box office industries. The fact of the matter is we are in a pandemic that has forever transformed the landscape of film and their theatrical releases. To assume that this wouldn’t have an effect of how films are released in other countries, particularly China is small minded and unfair. Additionally, failing to recognize the Chinese Communist Party Celebration month(s) is short sided and not inclusive of the larger conversation at play. It’s easy to say things like, “This film doesn’t have a Chinese therefore it’s a failure globally.” It’s much more difficult to say things like, “China has their own film market that, at times doesn’t include outside influence or films and many of our summer blockbusters are delayed due to this common film operation.” It may be easier to exclude this very important fact, but this framework and global box office understanding expands the perspective and provides a much more comprehensive outlook on what is really going on.

So, the cliff notes: China operates perfectly without American films, and regularly has blackout periods during the summer to celebrate their own country values and films. American films rely heavily on this market, but are always at the mercy of their schedule, restrictions, and country specific releases. Films are often specific to their own country, and global releases are more commonly seen with American films than others. This is fine, but as the very successful “Hi, Mom” demonstrates, there is a whole world of film outside of our small, American industry.

I know it’s hard to believe, but we are not the center of the universe even in the world of make believe.

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