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  • Writer's pictureHunter Howe Cates

Movies That Were Saved By China At The Box Office

Originally published by on March 20, 2020.

"Why is Hollywood still making these movies?" you probably wonder, every time a box office bomb gets a sequel. The answer is simple: China. Consider the 2019 box office. Though the US generated $11.4 billion in ticket sales, China was right behind with a record $9.2 billion.

"Why is Hollywood still making these movies?" you probably wonder, every time a box office bomb gets a sequel. The answer is simple: China.

This change has taken root in Hollywood. Tentpole movie budgets have exploded, in large part because film studios feel they can justify the costs based on how much money is likely to pour in from Chinese audiences.

But the Chinese box office hasn't only saved total bombs — there are well-regarded franchises that would not have earned back their huge budgets if not for Chinese viewers. What movies owe their proverbial lives to China? You might be surprised. There are the movies that were saved by China at the box office.

China cancels Pacific Rim's apocalypse

Creature features and kaiju pics don't tend to make bank at the box office. With the notable exception of Jurassic Park's dinos, giant monsters aren't as reliable as superheroes, Star Wars, and Disney remakes. So Warner Brothers took a huge risk ($190 million to be exact) on Guillermo Del Toro's pitch to pit giant robots against colossal kaiju in summer 2013's Pacific Rim — a movie not based on a popular IP, that would cost $40 million more than 2015's surefire hit Jurassic World.

Did the bet pay off? Not in America.

Pacific Rim opened to $37 million — not bad for an original story in the summer but as the weeks wound on, it ended up earning only $101 million. The film wasn't a hit in Japan either, the land of giant monster pics, earning just $14 million.

Yet Pacific Rim still finished strong with a $411 million worldwide haul, thanks to its $111 million Chinese box office. Pacific Rim was such a worldwide hit, in fact, that Universal spent $150 million on 2018's Pacific Rim: Uprising.

However, audiences were apathetic after five years, so the film's $59 million domestic take was appalling, and its $99 million Chinese box office couldn't save it. Pacific Rim: Uprising's $290 million worldwide gross was a steep drop from the first film, so while Pacific Rim is getting an anime Netflix series, a live-action sequel is doubtful.

China saves Transformers 4 from Extinction

The Transformers franchise has earned roughly the GDP of Cybertron: $1.5 billion stateside and $4.8 billion worldwide across six films, for an average $692 million worldwide per film. But the devil is very much in the details when it comes to this series. The franchise is enormously expensive, costing a grand total of $1.09 billion, an average of $180 million per film.

After Transformers: Dark of the Moon earned a franchise-high $1.12 billion worldwide on a $195 million budget, Paramount thought it was a safe bet to spend $210 million on the sequel, 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction. Executives were probably sweating a little when the movie only opened to $100 million and closed with $245 million in America, more than $100 million less than Dark of the Moon's $352 million domestic haul.

What saved Transformers 4 from extinction? China. The film earned an unreal $301 million in China, which did the heavy lifting for its $1.1 billion haul. Thanks to China, Transformers was safe...for a time.

Transformers: The Last Knight earned just $602 million worldwide on an Avengers-sized $217 budget in 2017, while series spin-off Bumblebee earned by far the franchise's best reviews, but also the lowest gross, at $465 million on a $102 million budget. Not a bomb, but definitely heading in the wrong direction. Before Bumblebee opened in December 2018, Paramount had already decided to park Transformers 7, removing it from its 2019 release slate before the robot-vehicle franchise inevitably crashed.

China makes Warcraft the biggest video game movie ever

Video game movies are having a renaissance. Pokémon Detective Pikachu became the highest-grossing video game adaptation ever, earning $144 million domestically in summer 2019, only for Sonic The Hedgehog to race past it less than a year later, with a current total of $145 million domestically. Keyword: domestically. Neither movie is likely to become the highest-grossing video game movie of all time at the worldwide box office. That title belongs to Warcraft.

Surprised? We were too.

You might have thought Warcraft was a bomb because in North America, it absolutely was. The movie cost $160 million to produce, but only opened to $24 million in summer 2016 and closed with a dreadful $47 million domestically. That's actually one of the worst domestic performances for a video game movie ever.

So what saved the movie, and secured its spot atop the record books? You guessed it: China.

Warcraft earned a blockbuster $225 million in China, accounting for 51% of its $439 million worldwide total. With only $47 million from North America and just $147 million across every other international territory except for China, it's safe to say that China was literally the only country in the entire world that actually liked the movie. China may have saved the film, but given Warcraft's abysmal reviews, we doubt they can save the franchise.

China saved this Genisys from being terminated

When Arnold Schwarzenegger said "I'll be back," he wasn't kidding. There have been six Terminator films, and while the franchise hit its creative and commercial peak in 1992 with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, its done pretty well at the worldwide box office. The Terminator series has earned a little over $2 billion worldwide on a total combined budget of $816 million. That worldwide total tells the story, as the series' domestic total is just $669 million. If not for international audiences the robots would have retired a long time ago.

The Terminator series' dependency on foreign grosses, especially China's, was nowhere more obvious than in Terminator Genisys. Despite 2015 being topped by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World, American moviegoers were no longer nostalgic for The Terminator franchise. Terminator Genisys opened to just $27 million on its way to a $89 million domestic gross on a $155 million budget.

That would have been the franchise's judgment day if not for China, where the film earned $113 million, contributing 26% of its $440 million worldwide gross. The franchise was still on life support though, and met its Dark Fate in 2019, as the sixth Terminator earned just $62 million domestic and $261 million worldwide (with just $50 million of that coming from China) on a $185 million budget. Box office numbers like that only mean one thing: Hasta la vista, baby.

China kept these action stars from being Expendable

What's better than one action movie star? All of them. The novelty of seeing every macho action movie actor in one movie powered The Expendables to a $34 million opening weekend in 2010, on its way to $103 million domestically and $268 million worldwide. With a modest $80 million budget, 80s icons Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Lundgren proved they were back in business in a big way.

The Expendables 2 flexed its muscles and got its budget bumped up to $100 million, and while its domestic box office returns were about 15% lower ($85 million), it's worldwide take topped $311 million. However, by the time the third film rolled around in 2014 the nostalgia had worn off in North America. The Expendables 3 cost $100 million to produce, but opened to $15 million and earned a dreadful $39 million in North America, making it a dud at the domestic market.

So what saved the old dudes' reunion from turning into a total dumpster fire? Its overseas gross, most of it coming from China. The film earned $214 worldwide, $72 million of it coming from China. In other words, nearly 34% of its gross came from one country. The action heroes were saved by China, but with puny margins like that, we haven't seen an Expendables sequel since, and probably never will.

China was this action films' Escape Plan

There was a time when Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in the same movie would have been the biggest hit of the year. That time was not 2013. By the turn of the new millennium, both movie star's box office glory days had long since passed, and both had to cash checks from their shared franchise, The Expendables, and sequels to their biggest hits from years past, like Rocky/Creed, Rambo, and The Terminator.

There was a time when Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger starring in the same movie would have been the biggest hit of the year. That time was not 2013.

So it was bittersweet to see the two 80s action megastars finally star in the same movie together, 2013's Escape Plan, a film that was ... meh. It earned lackluster reviews, and while historically Stallone and Schwarzenegger have been critic-proof, this time, the movie's bad reviews and word-of-mouth did some damage.

Escape Plan opened to just $9 million and made a wimpy $25 million domestically. But Escape Plan managed to escape being a total disaster, thanks to its $40 million China haul.

With $137 million worldwide on a an ambitious budget of $70 million, Escape Plan was still a bomb, but would have been way worse if not for China. Escape Plan's theatrical dreams were DOA, but its story has continued as a direct-to-video series, sans Schwarzenegger, with Escape Plan 2: Hades in 2018 and Escape Plan 3: The Extractors in 2019.

China saves a film from panda-monium

How many movies can you actually make about an anthropomorphic panda voiced by Jack Black who knows martial arts? The answer is the same as it always is in Hollywood — as many of them that make money. For the Kung Fu Panda franchise, that number was three.

The first film opened to a boffo $60 million in 2008, on its way to a $215 million domestic and $631 million worldwide take. With a modest $130 million budget, that profitability spells one thing: sequels! The 2011 followup cost $150 million to make, and made way less domestically ($165 million), but a little bit more worldwide ($664 million), so Twentieth Century Fox felt confident spending $145 million on 2016's Kung Fu Panda 3.

However, the Kung Fu Panda franchise's domestic box office continued to bleed, as the film only earned $143 stateside. Kung Fu Panda 3's worldwide box office was a disappointment as well, earning just $521 million. This was a $140 million drop from Kung Fu Panda 2's $664 million global gross — but it would have been even worse, if not for China's $154 million box office. China accounted for an incredible 30% of Kung Fu Panda 3's global box office, saving the film from box office Panda-monium.

Resident Evil bombed in America, but was a blockbuster in China

The post-apocalyptic Resident Evil franchise has had six films since 2002, leaving one to wonder how long it takes the world to actually end. But with an average production budget of $48 million, and total franchise grosses of $270 million domestic (average: $45 million) and $1.3 billion worldwide (average: $204 million), it's easy to see why Screen Gems keeps making sequels to this popular video game adaptation.

Screen Gems released five Resident Evil movies between 2002 and 2012, basically one every two to three years, before giving the series a five-year break that ended with 2017's Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. North American audiences were over it, as Resident Evil: The Final Chapter earned a franchise-killing $26 million domestically, a disastrous 38% drop from Resident Evil: Retribution's already low $42 million in 2012.

With a $40 million production budget, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter would have been in big trouble if it weren't for not-so-little China. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter was a blockbuster in China, earning a staggering $159 million, contributing 51% to a franchise-best $312 million worldwide, despite the film dying a horrible death in the US. For context for just how great that gross is, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter earned more than three times as much as Star Wars: The Last Jedi did in China ($159 million vs. $42 million) despite The Last Jedi being 2017's biggest global hit with $1.3 billion worldwide.

Vin Diesel's return as xXx was a big deal in China

Shoot-'em-ups are hit-or-miss in the US, but big business in China, especially when they star Vin Diesel. With a plot that defies logic and action sequences that defy physics, Vin Diesel's xXx was the poster child for early 2000s action hits and had the box office to match.

The story of a stunt driver turned secret agent opened to $44 million in 2002, earning $141 million domestically and $267 million worldwide on a $70 million budget. Numbers like that spell sequels, but Vin Diesel wasn't interested, so 2005's xXx: State of the Union stars Ice Cube instead. Alas, moviegoers missed Vin, and the film only mustered a measly $26 million domestic, $71 million worldwide gross on a $60 million budget, killing the xXx franchise after only two films ... or so we thought.

With a plot that defies logic and action sequences that defy physics, Vin Diesel's xXx was the poster child for early 2000s action hits and had the box office to match.

Diesel had a change of heart and returned to the series 12 years later for 2017's xXX: Return of Xander Cage. American moviegoers had forgotten about the franchise (they must have missed the million reruns of xXx on TNT), so the film only managed $44 million domestically on a $85 million budget, proving Vin should have struck while the iron was hot. Good thing China loves Diesel!

xXx: Return of Xander Cage earned a blockbuster $164 million in China, 47% of its $346 million worldwide take, handily out-earning 2017's biggest global hits Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($42 million) and Beauty & The Beast ($85 million) in China.

Pirates 5 beat Star Wars, Marvel and Disney in China

The Pirates of the Caribbean series just won't sink. While the series has suffered from box office scurvy stateside, Pirates makes so much money overseas it is liable to keep sailing in some form or fashion for years to come. The high water mark was Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which opened to a then-record-breaking $135 million in 2006, sailing onward to $423 million domestic and $1.06 billion worldwide.

But oh, how the mighty have fallen, as the latest entry in the series, 2017's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, opened to $62 million and earned $172 million stateside. In other words, Pirates 2 earned more in one week ($196 million) than Pirates 5 earned in its entire domestic run.

With an absolutely astronomical $230 million budget, Pirates 5 would have had Walt Disney Studios drowning in the red if not for China. The much-maligned fifth film in the Pirates franchise earned $172 million in China, more than twice as much as 2011's Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' $70 million, and 22% of its worldwide booty of $794 million.

Pirates 5 actually earned more in China than any other Disney movie in 2017, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($42 million), Beauty and the Beast ($85 million), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($100 million), and Thor: Ragnarok ($112 million). No wonder Disney executives reportedly want Johnny Depp back as Captain Jack Sparrow.

Matt Damon hit a Great Wall in North America

All the pieces were in place for The Great Wall to make history — and multiple millions at the box office too. This $150 million-budgeted US/China co-production stars American and Chinese luminaries, and was directed by blockbuster Chinese action director Zhang Yimou.

In The Great Wall, Matt Damon plays the leader of a group of European mercenaries who discover the real reason why the Great Wall of China exists: To help a secret army defend the country against a horde of monsters. So, you know, everything you learned in your junior year world history class was wrong.

This sort of sci-fi/fantasy epic-meets-period-piece is a tough sell for American audiences, and the film's rotten reviews didn't help matters. The Great Wall opened to $18 million on its way to a $45 million gross. Not great, but by then The Great Wall had already made most of its money two months before in its most important market, China.

In The Great Wall European mercenaries discover the real reason why the Great Wall of China exists: To help a secret army defend the country against a horde of monsters. So everything you learned in your junior year world history class was wrong.

The Great Wall opened in China on December 16, 2016, earning an incredible $170 million, more than 50% of its $334 million worldwide total. Its thin profit margin and bad reviews make it hard to call this historic co-production a success, however, as The Great Wall would have hit a wall if not for China.

Furious owes its fate to China

The Fast and Furious franchise is a behemoth, with gargantuan grosses that put it in the same league as Star Wars, Marvel, Jurassic Park, and Disney's live-action remakes. However, while each of those franchises make a lot of money everywhere, their biggest market is still North America.

The Fast and the Furious is different — it's biggest market is China and has been for years. With $1.162 billion overseas ($1.5 billion worldwide), 2015's Furious 7 is the fifth biggest international hit ever, behind only Avatar, Avengers: Endgame, Titanic, and Avengers: Infinity War. Furious 7 only made $353 domestically (about half as much as the others) — but it brought in $390 million in China.

With strong overseas grosses like that, Universal felt confident enough to write a $250 million check for 2017's followup, The Fate of the Furious. However, while the film opened strong with $98 million, it ran out of gas at the $225 million mark, more than $100 million less than Furious 7 domestically.

Universal didn't panic thanks to China, where The Fate of the Furious earned $392 million, leading the way to a $1.2 billion worldwide gross. China accounted for more than 30% of F8's box office and was its biggest market by a cool $170 million. Given how dependent this franchise is on China, it's no surprise that Fast and Furious 9 was delayed a full year when China closed down its movie theaters.

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