The Force wasn’t quite strong enough with Walt Disney’s eighth instalment of its Star Wars movie franchise, as The Last Jedi lost at China’s box office during its opening weekend to a locally produced romantic comedy.
The Last Jedi, with Mark Hamill reprising the role he played 34 years earlier, was the fifth-biggest opening in world movie history, raking in US$1.21 billion in global box office receipts as of January 7. In China, its opening weekend took in US$28.7 million, a third of the 563 million yuan (US$86.7 million) reported by Ex-Files 3: The Return of the Exes over the same weekend.
The stellar performance by Ex-Files 3 is a David-against-Goliath victory for China’s movie studios, as they claw their way out of their 2016 box office doldrums using home spun scripts and low-budget production against Hollywood’s multimillion-dollar production and marketing budgets. Themes closer to home also resonate better with the new generation of Chinese movie goers, who weren’t yet born when Hamill last played Luke Skywalker in 1983, analysts said.
“The excellent performance of Ex-File shows the overwhelming passion by Chinese audience toward domestic movies,” said Caitong Securities’ analyst Tao Ye, who recommends investors buy Chinese movie studios like Beijing Enlight Media and China Film. “We are bullish on China’s domestic films this year.”
Ex-Files 3, the second sequel to the 2014 Ex-Files by China’s Huayi Brothers Media Corp., was produced on a budget of 30 million yuan, a drop in the bucket compared with the US$200 million spent on The Last Jedi.
Directed by Tian Yusheng, the story is about two lengthy break-ups between two couples who are also friends with each other, and how the ex-boyfriends indulged themselves re-living the bachelor’s dream until their ex-girlfriends reappeared to upend their lives.
The Chinese movie is expected to eventually top 2.3 billion yuan at the box office by the time its release is over, according to Caitong’s estimates, a substantial jump from its two prequels – released in 2014 and 2015 – with 400 million yuan in combined takings.
What changed between 2014 and 2017 was the explosive growth of China’s smartphone-enabled social media and the emergence of a group of young people living among China’s smaller cities with the prosperity to spend, known as the “small town youngsters”. This emerging demographic contributed nearly 20 billion yuan to China’s box office takings in 2017, an increase of 22 per cent from 2016, analysts said.
“What can be seen from 2017 was that those so called small town youngsters have become the driving force of China’s box office growth,” said Sealand Securities’ analyst Shao Wei.
China’s box office was in the doldrums in 2016, when a scam in ticket sales and the advent of movie-streaming services took a chunk out of the booming industry. Total box office takings growth slowed to 3.7 per cent in 2016, after soaring by more than 30 per cent in the previous five years.
Things started to pick up in 2017, with the increase in film takings back to double digits, adding 22.9 per cent to reach 55.8 billion yuan, according to ticketing service Maoyan.