A $160-million film with a $24 million opening weekend is usually a stomach-lurching experience for its studios and producers. That’s not the story with Duncan Jones’ “Warcraft” (Legendary/Universal), which opened poorly in North America (after execrable reviews), but is a huge international hit—mostly in burgeoning market China.
However, while Wanda-owned financier Legendary and global distributor Universal are heaving sighs of relief, the real story is more worrisome for American exhibitors.
“Warcraft” is a videogame adaptation. That concept doesn’t do much for domestic audiences; not so, worldwide. In China, which is home for half of the 5 million people who play the World of Warcraft game, the film opened June 8, two days ahead of North America and on 67% of China’s 39,000 screens. Timed for public holiday the Dragon Boat Festival, it yielded $156 million in five days. “Warcraft” topped the box office and could outstrip the current Hollywood top-grosser in China, “Furious 7.” (Legendary owner Wanda is a major exhibitor in China, so they are reporting some of these numbers.)
Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, a global box office draw in both the West and the East, loves the idea that as the China box office outstrips North America, Hollywood will no longer call the shots. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, “If we can make a film that earns 10bn [yuan], then people from all over the world who study film will learn Chinese, instead of us learning English.”
On the one hand, money is money. So what if the domestic gross is less than 10% of the total foreign take?
On the other hand… this marks a huge loss for theater owners across the country. And if top movies continue to place greater value on their foreign appeal — with more financing from Chinese and other international investors — American audiences become less important, and so do the theaters that serve them. (AMC, soon to be the largest North American theater chain, is also Chinese-owned; at least the Chinese have some stake in their American prosperity.)
“Hollywood is certainly looking globally,” wrote National Association of Theater Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran in an email, “and trying to hit big in as many markets as possible… As Hollywood swings for the fences worldwide, we need more titles that are aimed at a domestic audience in particular. Just as international markets with strong local film industries in addition to Hollywood product tend to be better performing markets, we need a strong local industry, too. A broader mix of movies creates more opportunities to reach audiences and provides some insulation when the planned home runs don’t quite make it out of the infield.”