Sunday February 06, 2022
Box Office Returns: Spider-Man vs. China
Once upon a time I did a regular box office post on Sundays. Then Covid. The last one I did, March 29, 2020, was called “No Time to Die,” and included a photo of the shuttered Uptown Theater in Minneapolis and “I ASSURE YOU WE'RE NOT OPEN” displayed on the marquee. A month before that I had a post, “Coronavirus Shutters Chinese Theaters,” which now reads incredibly short-sighted to me. I can't believe it took me that long to figure out why Chinese movie theaters were closed—and with no inkling that U.S. theaters and the rest of the world would soon be next.
All this time I haven't been paying much attention to movie box office. Here's the big picture of what I missed:
- China had the No. 1 worldwide box-office hit in 2020, “The Eight Hundred,” about a small group of Chinese soldiers who battle the Japanese Army in 1937 Shanghai. Well, “worldwide.” It grossed $460 million in China and $1 million in the rest of the world—and most of that, one assumes, from the Chinese diaspora. Even so, I believe it's the first non-western film, and probably the first non-Hollywood film, to top the worldwide box office. It's always Hollywood. Kind of fascinating when you think about it. A virus that begins in China shutters the rest of the world, allowing China to reopen and take all the goodies. Most conspiracy theories are made of less stuff than this.
- In 2021, China had Nos. 2 and 3 in the worldwide box office: another historical war epic, “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” in which the Chinese fight the Americans during the Korean War, and which set a record for Chinese domestic and non-English worldwide box office with a $900 million haul; and “Hi, Mom,” a goofy time-travel comedy, in which a woman travels back to befriend her mom in the hope of making her own life better. That did $822 million. (I'm always amazed at how well Chinese comedies do. American comic actors must shake their heads in wonder.)
- No. 1 for 2021 was Hollywood again, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” and by a longshot. The numbers it pulled in during the pandemic's highly contagious Omicron stage are stunning and demonstrate how much people want a return to normalcy: second-highest domestic daily opening ($121 million), second-highest domestic opening weekend ($260 million), fourth-biggest domestic gross ($741 million and counting), and sixth-biggest worldwide gross ($1.7 billion and counting).
I'm reminded of America flocking to the original “Spider-Man” in May 2002 after eight months of 9/11 news—making it the first flick to gross north of $100 million opening weekend. Now, nearly two years into this thing, Spidey saves the day again. Or makes us momentarily forget the day.
Will the Chinese ever figure out a way to make movies that appeal to non-Chinese? Xi Jinping loves Hollywood movies, and wants China to become that, but over the last five years it's felt like their movies are getting more doctrinaire rather than less. They speak more to the Chinese and less to the rest of us.
I've only seen one movie in a theater this year, “Drive My Car” at NW Film Forum (which was great), but I hope to see “Spider-Man: No Way Home” soon. Thwip.
Anyway, that's your box office update.