“The Batman” flew to a worryingly slow start on Friday at the mainland China box office, where Hollywood films have struggled of late and where the latest coronavirus surge is threatening films of all origins.
By 3.30pm on its first full day, the Warner Bros. noir had earned a lowly RMB12.1 million, or $1.90 million at prevailing currency rates, according to provisional data from ticketing agency Maoyan. Including previews from Thursday, “The Batman” had a total by early afternoon of RMB13.7 million, or $2.15 million.
On the plus side, “The Batman” ranked on top of the mainland China box office chart with a 70% market share, more than five times greater than second placed “The Battle at Lake Changjin II.”
“Uncharted,” which opened on Monday in China, and had deposed the “Lake Changjin” juggernaut, placed third on early Friday afternoon. After a little more than four days in Chinese cinemas it had accumulated RMB41.6 million ($6.52 million).
Previous Batman films have scored reasonably strongly in China: “The Dark Knight Rises” earned $53 million in 2012; “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” scored $97 million in 2016; and “Justice League,” when China was the first country to premiere the film, earned $106 million in 2017.
Maoyan has forecast that “The Batman” will achieve a RMB215 million ($34 million) lifetime total in China. The early Friday provisional data makes that look unlikely.
Since the 2020, Chinese audiences have been offered fewer Hollywood films than in previous years, a situation created by a smaller flow of U.S. tentpoles during 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and by Chinese government action to crimp imports of American films in 2021. Disney and Sony have not been able to get import approval for five of their Marvel films and there has not been a U.S. super-hero movie released in China for over a year. Instead, Chinese audiences have been treated to a succession of patriotic locally-made blockbusters, that have played especially well at holiday peaks.
Until very recently, “The Batman” appeared to offer a useful test of whether mainland Chinese audiences might still turn out in force for a major Hollywood franchise title. The film completed its passage through censorship early enough to build a meaningful marketing campaign. Its China release, while not a day-and-date outing, was positioned relatively close to the film’s North American debut. And the film has the kudos of having performed strongly at the North American and international box offices, with $258 million earned in the North American domestic market and $505 million worldwide.
But, suddenly, new COVID-conditions and related theatre closures make comparisons difficult.
Artisan Gateway has estimated that 30% of screens are now closed. Screening numbers through the week have been trending downwards. On Thursday, “Uncharted” played to 72,000 screenings (for just $850,000 of revenue), down from 94,000 on its Monday opening. “Lake Changjin II,” had similarly reduced from 33,000 sessions on Monday to 27,000 on Thursday.
China has largely kept COVID at bay since March 2020 through a rigid policy of border restrictions, localized lockdowns, ‘closed loop’ circuits, and mass testing programs. The arrival of the Omicron variant of the disease has alarm bells ringing, as case numbers reach new peaks – peaks that are still low in comparison with countries that have opted for ‘living with COVID’ policies.
On Friday, China’s National Health Commission said that 2,388 local cases that presented symptoms had been detected on Thursday. (That compared with 1,226 recorded on Wednesday and which were reported on Thursday.) In addition, Thursday saw 73 imported cases and 1,904 asymptomatic cases.
The government has responded with lockdowns and limited restrictions that affected over 30 million people, according to estimates. These affect nearly all provinces, but are especially pronounced in big southern cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan and in Tianjin and Jilin province in the North East. Shanghai has also recorded cases and responded with localized cinema closures.
Cinema closures in the mega cities are expected to weigh most heavily on the performance of Hollywood films as these are the areas with the most affluent populations and with those most open to foreign movies.