The Chinese New Year holidays have brought back scenes not seen in mainland China cinemas for a year – a slew of new release titles and crowds to match.
Few records will be broken. But after several months of desertification, the flood of returning cinema-goers may be a relief to the wider industry.
The holiday period, marked by family reunions, began on Saturday. New releases of some of the year’s most anticipated films followed on Sunday.
Most prominent among these were “The Wandering Earth 2,” a prequel to a massive sci-fi hit from 2019 and historical suspense comedy “Full River Red,” from Zhang Yimou.
Claiming top spot, “The Wandering Earth 2” earned close to $71 million on its opening day ahead of “Full River Red” which earned just shy of $60 million. Third, fourth and fifth places belonged to a trio of next and neck performances by World War II spy thriller “Hidden Blade” with $20.4 million, animation franchise film “Boonie Bears: Guardian Code” ($19.8 million) and “Five Hundred Miles” ($18.9 million). Children’s animated film “Deep Sea” took fifth place with $10.8 million.
Monday performances saw “The Wandering Earth 2” and “Full River Red” swap chart places as the sci-fi tale dropped to $55 million on its second day. “Boonie Bears: Guardian Code” also gained a place, climbing ahead of “Hidden Blade” with an $18 million second day.
Tuesday witnessed another reshuffle as “Ping-Pong of China” got a Jan. 24 release and served up a $44 million first day.
After the third day of the new cinema season, “Full River Red” had accumulated $187 million, “Wandering Earth 2” $181 million, “Boonie Bears: Guardian Code” $60.6 million and “Hidden Blade” $53.8 million. The one-day performance of Ping-pong” was good enough for fifth.
The first day total added up to RMB1.34 billion ($198 million) earned from some 24 million ticket sales, according to tracking service Beacon. That was lower than the RMB1.45 million earned in 2021 and the RMB1.67 billion earned on the first day of the holiday season last year.
But after the COVID-induced second half malaise pulled last year’s overall box office down by 36% (to some RMB30 billion, compared with RMB 47 billion in 2021), a recovery has at least begun. The top six Chinese New Year titles earned a combined $604 million in three days.
State-controlled media praised the performance of Chinese-made films in the period and calculated that the year-to-date box office performance in China is greater than that of North America – though it was comparing a peak holiday season in one with a normally slow month stateside.
Giant screen cinema provider Imax reported that 2023 was its second best Chinese New Year opening day. Its more than 700 screens in China earned $7 million on Sunday, with “The Wandering Earth 2” accounting for some $6 million of that.
The company has worked in recent years to broaden its operation with local filmmakers and production companies. The Chinese New Year chart includes four local-language titles “The Wandering Earth 2,” “Full River Red,” “Hidden Blade” and “Deep Sea.”
“Avatar: The Way of Water” was recently given a release extension that allows it to play for a second month and through a time normally reserved by regulators for the release of Chinese-language films. As screens were switched over to the new release titles, its earnings predictably dived – to less than $100,000 on Sunday from 210 sessions. By Tuesday, it was bouncing back somewhat, and took $720,000 from nearly 2,000 sessions. After 40 days in Chinese cinemas, “Avatar 2” has now earned $235 million.