They really like Christopher Nolan’s films in China.
The director’s “Dark Knight” trilogy proved hugely popular with Chinese audiences and his 2014 sci-fi blockbuster “Interstellar” grossed $122 million there.
Now, Nolan’s World War II epic “Dunkirk” has generated more than $120 million world-wide in less than a week. The widespread commercial and critical appeal of the movie, which recounts the evacuation of more than 300,000 British troops fleeing a French beach in May-June 1940, has reinforced 46-year-old Nolan’s position as one of Hollywood’s hottest properties.
The movie opened strongly in Asia but has yet to open in China because of the country’s annual summer blackout on foreign films. The “domestic film protection period,” as it is called, is designed to boost the Chinese film industry during peak moviegoing season. The blackout on Hollywood films will be lifted on Aug. 25, and “Dunkirk” is scheduled to open there on Sept. 1.
Whether “Dunkirk” finds favor in China remains to be seen. But if the movie plays to packed movie theaters in Beijing and Shanghai, it would be a huge relief for Warner Bros., which financed “Dunkirk” on a budget of $100 million, excluding marketing costs. The film’s success would also boost the status of quality summer blockbusters in the global movie market.
After all, China is currently the second-largest generator of global box-office revenue after North America. It’s estimated that in the next half a decade, as China continues to add screens and IMAX theaters, the country will become the world’s biggest box office territory.
But opinion is divided on “Dunkirk’s” Chinese commercial prospects since Chinese audiences tend to go for blockbuster franchises and sequels.
That’s not to say that Chinese audience’s tastes are predictable. “The Fate of the Furious” is the all-time top grossing Hollywood film in China, generating $395.1 million. But “Warcraft,” a colossal blockbuster action flop in most western territories when it was released a year ago, made nearly twice as much money in China ($218 million) as “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” owing to the popularity in China of the “Warcraft” videogame.
“It’s usually big franchise films like ‘Transformers’ or action movies that do well in China,” says comScore movie commerce analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “China is also a really important territory for many American films that might otherwise not have been profitable if not for the Chinese market supporting those films. Often films that are not well-reviewed in North America still do very well in China because there’s a different interpretation there of what makes a movie good.”
Nolan’s sweeping “Dunkirk” isn’t short on spectacle and possesses universal themes of surviving, avoiding annihilation and honor in the face of adversity.
Yet the film also has a nonlinear narrative and minimal dialogue. It doesn’t have much by way of the staple blockbuster “Good versus Evil” theme and doesn’t feature American stars.
Indeed “Dunkirk” reflects Nolan’s increasing unease about the current state of franchise filmmaking that he built his career on. “Right now individual voices in mainstream filmmaking are a little bit buried by the concept of the existing franchise, which has become a very robust economic model for the studios,” he recently told “Time.”
This makes “Dunkirk” a hard sell in China, according to some industry observers. Rob Cain, global film columnist for Forbes, reckons the movie “won’t mean much to the bulk of China’s young, sci-fi and superhero-loving moviegoing population. “Dunkirk” won’t be relatable for Chinese filmgoers, and even with the golden Nolan name attached, it won’t be nearly as enjoyable for them as his previous pictures.”
Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP PLC WPP, +0.13% who now spends much of his time in China, is skeptical of “Dunkirk”’s commercial prospects. “I very much hope it does [well in China],” he wrote via email. “It should do by rights, but I’m somewhat dubious. Very much hope I’m wrong.”
Others disagree. “Word of mouth is building for “Dunkirk” and we expect a solid [box office] performance,” said Rance Pow, president of Shanghai-based cinema consulting firm Artisan Gateway. Citing Artisan Gateway figures that Mel Gibson’s war movie “Hacksaw Ridge” made $61 million in China last December, he says the genre is popular there.
Dergarabedian concurs. “‘Dunkirk’ might not be your typical blockbuster. It’s a decidedly sophisticated and intelligent movie, what I call a tone poem,” he says. “But ‘Dunkirk’ speaks the international language of cinema.”
“There’s a pent-up demand in China as moviegoers await its arrival,” he says. “While it does have its challenges compared with its typical blockbuster brethren, “Dunkirk” definitely has an X-Factor going for it.”
Asian business experts also forecast success for the movie. Euan Rellie, co-founder and senior director of BDA Partners, which advises on M&A and cross-border investment in Asia, says “Even though we’re frenemies, the Chinese love American culture.”
“Warner Bros is making a massive push into China and will do everything it humanly can to make ‘Dunkirk’ a hit. It’s hard to predict but I think that ‘Dunkirk’ will outperform expectations in China,” he says.
Warner Bros opened a new China office last March and runs Flagship Entertainment, a joint venture studio in Beijing, together with state-backed investment fund China Media Capital. A spokesperson for Warner Bros. didn’t respond for a comment about the marketing strategy for “Dunkirk” in China.
The film also stars Harry Styles, the 23-year-old singer in boy band One Direction, which has a huge Asian following. “Harry Styles is in this film makes a big difference- he’s much loved by 20-somethings in China,” Rellie says.
Best-selling military historian Andrew Roberts, whose biography “Napoleon: A Life” was recently translated into Chinese, hopes the consequences for “Dunkirk” extend beyond boosting Warner Bros.’s bottom line. “China lost 15 million dead in the defeat of the Axis powers, far more than all the other Allied countries put together besides Russia,” he says. “If Chinese people appreciate the movie “Dunkirk,” which I hope they do, it will be because of the individual stories of heroism and sacrifice that it tells.”
By TOM TEODORCZUK