- The Chinese box office has been increasingly important for Hollywood films in recent decades, especially those released under the Marvel Cinematic Universe banner.
- However, policy changes within the Chinese government, coupled with accelerated growth of its own domestic box office, has led China to be more selective about which Western films are shown within the country.
- "Spider-Man: No Way Home" has not received a release date in China, losing out on potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales.
Since its release in December, "Spider-Man: No Way Home" continues to top box office expectations.
The film is the only Hollywood release since 2019 to top $1 billion at the global box office, and with $748.9 million at the domestic box office it is the fourth-highest grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Canada, just behind "Avatar," which has generated $760.5 million, according to Comscore data.
The feat comes as no other domestic release managed to surpass $250 million in ticket sales during their 2021 theatrical runs.
However, it is "No Way Home's" global box office haul that has experts buzzing. With $1.77 billion, the Sony-Disney co-production has become the sixth-highest grossing film of all time, just behind "Titanic" (1997), which stands at $1.84 billion. And it reached that figure without a China release.
The Chinese box office has been increasingly important for Hollywood films, especially those released under the Marvel Cinematic Universe banner. However, policy changes within the Chinese government, coupled with the accelerated growth of its own domestic box office, has led China to be more selective about which Western films are shown within the country.
The top four global releases, "Avatar" (2009), "Avengers: Endgame" (2019), "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (2015) and "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018), all topped $2 billion worldwide and had significant contributions from the Chinese box office.
In fact, without ticket sales from China, "The Force Awakens" and "Avengers: Infinity War" would still be below $2 billion.
"Spider-Man's massive global success is one for the ages, but even it isn't without a few asterisks," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. "The lack of a release in China has no doubt resulted in at least several hundred million dollars left on the table."
The China effect
Since 2012′s "The Avengers," China has been the second-highest grossing box office for all Marvel movies, just behind the U.S. and Canada. Ticket sales in the region typically account for between 10% and 20% of these film's total grosses.
2017's "Spider-Man: Homecoming" generated around 13.3% of its total box office from China, about $117 million, and 2019's "Spider-Man: Far From Home" saw 18.25% of its global haul, or $204.9 million, from the region, according to Comscore data.
With "Spider-Man: No Way Home" bringing together generations of Spider-Man characters, it acts more like an Avengers-style team-up movie like "Captain America: Civil War," "Avengers: Infinity War" or "Avengers: Endgame," which means its total percentage could have been on the higher end of the spectrum, ranging from 18% to 22%.
Even a conservative 10% of total ticket sales would have given the latest Spider-Man film a $170 million boost. At 20%, "Spider-Man: No Way Home" would have generated around $340 million in sales from China, exceeding the $2 billion mark.
"The ultimate final tally certainly would be higher, perhaps over $2 billion, with China's contribution," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
Over the weekend, "No Way Home" tallied another $25 million in ticket sales, but with diminishing returns in the coming weeks as well as a digital release of the film in the home market expected by the end of February, box office analysts do not expect the film to reach the $2 billion milestone.
After all, markets in which the film was not released have likely taken to pirating the film online and will have little incentive to see it in theaters once a higher-quality digital copy is made available.
"Many argue that 'Spider-Man: No Way Home's' global success shows that Hollywood doesn't have to rely on the China market," said Jun Fang, a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Colby College. "This is naive and out of touch because not all Hollywood movies can be as successful as Spider-Man, and not all studios can afford to lose the Chinese film market entirely as Disney did with its Marvel movies in 2021."
Marvel shut out
Since 2019's "Spider-Man: Far From Home," no Marvel movie has been released in China.
Disney's first MCU release during the pandemic, "Black Widow," coincided with a blackout period in China. In July, the country leaves theaters open for local productions and boxes out foreign films.
This year, the scheduling for non-Chinese films was further impacted by the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party's founding. The occasion has resulted in a months-long period of censorship across all media. However, Marvel's "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" and "Eternals" were shutout of the country for other reasons.
China has strict rules on content and suppresses anything that it believes violates its core socialist values or detracts from its nationalistic image. The country recently expanded its crackdown on its own entertainment industry, telling broadcasters to ban artists with "incorrect political positions" and effeminate styles from shows in an attempt to cultivate a more "patriotic atmosphere."
For "Shang-Chi," it's the source material on which the film is based that likely led to the film not being allowed to play in Chinese theaters. The original comics have been considered racist and filled with reductive stereotypes. While Marvel head Kevin Feige went out of his way to quell any concerns about portrayals in the upcoming film, it wasn't enough to get it a release date in the country.
Marvel's "Eternals," on the other hand, was rebuffed because of director Chloe Zhao, who became a persona non grata in China after past remarks she made about the country surfaced online. The backlash led to her name and her achievements being wiped from much of the Chinese web.
"These all happened in the broad context of China's domestic political events and growing nationalism, and the U.S.-China geopolitical tensions, on top of the ongoing pandemic," Fang said. "In short, the ban on Marvel movies was the consequence of a series of organizational, political, and ideological mishaps that fueled one another."
What's happening in China
In recent years, Hollywood's access to the Chinese market has deteriorated significantly. In addition to quotas on how many Western films can be admitted into China's theaters, the country has established barriers to entry that can censor films entirely or limit how long before a release a film can be marketed.
China's already tight restrictions were further exacerbated in 2018 when the regulation of the country's film and television industry was moved to be under the control of the Communist Party's propaganda department, a decision that gave the party further control of China's media and entertainment.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing soared to new heights under the Trump administration, triggered, in part, by a slew of trade restrictions and economic sanctions. President Joe Biden has largely kept his predecessor's policies toward China and recently called for a "diplomatic boycott" of the Beijing Winter Olympics, citing ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
"The government can't just cut off Hollywood entirely because audiences still want to watch the movies," Fang said. "The party has to balance between what it wants and what the audience wants."
China's box office was bolstered in 2021 by a string of domestic "main melody" films like the Korean War epic "The Battle of Lake Changjin," which tallied around $900 million in sales during its run in theaters, which makes it the highest-grossing film of all time in China.
Main melody films are propagandistic stories that celebrate the glory of China and its leaders. Since 2018, these films have become more successful. In 2021, the genre accounted for four out of the top 10 films released in China.
"As Hollywood is losing its foot in China, U.S. studios need to figure out how to make movies that will resonate with Chinese audiences if they still hope to reap benefits from the China market," Fang said.