​Top 10 foreign films in China 2020

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 19, 2021
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Posters of the top 10 foreign films in China 2020. [Photo/China.org.cn]

By the end of 2019, Hollywood had much to be excited about, capping the year with a cinematic triumph that demonstrated the potential of the Chinese market: Disney and Marvel Studios' "Avengers: Endgame," which grossed approximately 4.25 billion yuan ($607.25 million).

Gearing up for 2020, the excitement was building over the release of Hollywood-made Chinese story "Mulan" and numerous other blockbusters in the booming market. But then COVID-19 changed the world forever. 

China's whopping 64.3-billion-yuan box office revenue in 2019 set a new annual domestic record. That figure seems even more remarkable when compared to 2020's total takings of 20.4 billion, down 68.2% year-on-year. However, China still became the biggest film market in the world in large part because the U.S. shut the majority of cinemas even to this day. 

In 2019, imported foreign films accounted for 38% of the annual total gross revenue of all films in the Chinese mainland market. But by 2020, foreign films only made up 16% of the roster, with most of which coming from Hollywood studios, as reported by the Beacon Research Institute, a box office analyst unit.

The withering presence of foreign films is not only due to the pandemic and release cancellations but also because of reduced marketing budgets and abilities of foreign studios, including the cancelation of Chinese premieres and international stars' promotional trips to China. Several other factors have also played a part in the diminishing reach of foreign films, including but not limited to a shift in domestic audience's interests, fatigue from brainless visual effects, an unavoidable cultural gap, a reliance upon Asian stereotypes, and occasionally the improper China-related joke. Hollywood blockbusters were losing their glamor even before the pandemic and their percentage share in the Chinese market has been shrinking for years. 

As worldwide cinemas struggle amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China.org.cn reviews the foreign films that performed best in China in 2020, reflecting changes in the market as well as indicating future trends.

1. "Tenet"

A still from "Tenet" [Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.]

Warner Bros.' sci-fi action film "Tenet" was the top-grossing foreign film in China in 2020, raking in 456 million yuan. However, even that taking was not able to see it crack China's top 10 highest-grossing films for the year, a list entirely occupied by China's domestic releases, and instead placed 11th. The sci-fi action spectacle from esteemed British director Christopher Nolan proved too complicated for many audiences — not only in China — to understand and connect with. 

2. "The Croods: A New Age"

A still from "The Croods: A New Age" [Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures]

Joel Crawford's "The Croods: A New Age," the hilarious sequel to the hit animated feature "The Croods," was a favorite among Chinese moviegoers this year and lauded for its fun-for-the-whole-family entertainment and visual theatrics. The film ended up grossing more than 345 million yuan in China.

3. "Soul"

A still from "Soul" [Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Studios]

"Soul," the latest animated feature from Disney and Pixar, is looking to be a strong Oscar contender. Exploring the seemingly heavy philosophies surrounding life and death, the film's release was initially largely ignored in China until rave reviews from critics and word-of-mouth praise from audiences saved it, forcing cinemas to extend screenings. The film is still showing and by Jan. 18 had grossed 282 million yuan, making it a dark horse among last year's releases and indicating that high-quality content pays off in China. In North America, meanwhile, audiences had to settle with watching it at home as it also went straight to the Disney+ platform. 

4. "Mulan"

A still from "Mulan" [Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Studios]

Disney had ambitions for the Chinese market when it chose to once again adapt the story of Chinese heroine Mulan into a magnificent live-action movie. Twenty-two years after the release of their animated version in 1998, Disney was angling to smash records, recruiting an all-Asian cast led by Liu Yifei and present China's natural beauty to the world. Unfortunately, just like the previous animated version, this new feature directed by Niki Caro was still unable to appease local audiences, who complained of too large a cultural gap and claimed, "this is not our Mulan." While the film earned 278 million yuan in China, in North America, and other markets, it went straight to Disney+ for premier access release, shaking up protocols in the U.S. film industry. In the end, the break from tradition may have paid off, with some positive audience response and financial results that reportedly pleased Disney executives. 

5. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

A still from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" [Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.]

The 4K, 3D reissue of Chris Columbus' "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first installment in the popular Harry Potter franchise, was a successful re-release in China last year and aroused serious Harry Potter nostalgia among Chinese fans. The film's release was an attempt to kickstart the frozen film market when screens reopened after having been shut for months due to COVID-19. Audiences were quick to demonstrate their excitement to return to the big screen and the film went on to gross 192 million yuan (247 million if you include the 65 million takings from its original release in 2002). When combined with its 2020 box office earnings, the film's global earnings exceed $1 billion, the second movie in the Harry Potter franchise to do so. 

6. "Wonder Woman 1984"

A still from "Wonder Woman 1984" [Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.]

Warner Bros. did a lot to inject a little hope into the film market's revival in 2020 via several blockbuster releases. Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman 1984” was one such release. Rather than delaying until 2021 and waiting for a more preferential market, the studio insisted on a 2020 release, making it Hollywood's last stand in a year marred by the pandemic. The stunning beauty and performance from Gal Gadot coupled with a story of greed versus hope also neatly reflected the chaotic world it entered. However, the film received mixed reviews that prevented it from soaring higher. In China, audiences complained that portions of the plot came across as naive and the production lacked enough exciting action sequences, including a deserved ultimate battle, which perhaps explains why the film has only grossed 166 million yuan so far. Whatever its shortfalls, Warner Bros. didn't seem too upset and is already busy working on the threequel.

7. "Dolittle"

A still from "Dolittle" [Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures]

Stephen Gaghan's fantasy adventure film "Dolittle," the tale of a doctor who can speak to animals, was one of the very first foreign films to open in China in 2020 when the cinemas just reopened. The decent family romp headed by a charismatic lead from Robert Downey Jr., made it popular among Chinese audiences, grossing 136 million yuan.

8. "Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna"

A Chinese poster of "Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna."[Photo courtesy of China Film Group]

Tomohisa Taguchi's "Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna" was one of the highest-grossing Japanese films in China in 2020. Released as part of the 20th-anniversary celebrations of the Digimon manga, the franchise hoped to cash in on its incredible popularity in China, appealing to both preexisting fans who grew up with it as well as attracting a new generation of enthusiasts. The bet paid off, with the animated feature taking 125 million yuan at the box office.

9. "Interstellar"

A still from "Interstellar" [Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.]

"Interstellar" was another successful re-release from Warner Bros., eventually grossing 121 million yuan. Combined with its previous earnings in China in 2014, the film's total takings now stands at 876 million yuan. Christopher Nolan's ninth feature film achieved global popularity, not only touching on the mysteries of the universe but also making them relatable through a parent-child relationship. While many of Nolan's films play out like a spectacular mind game, utilizing time almost as a protagonist, the sci-fi production in "Interstellar" made for a rarer, deeply moving spectacle and vaulted it to become his highest-grossing film in China. Besides "Interstellar," Nolan's new film "Tenet" as well as a re-release of "Inception" (grossing 33.79 million yuan) also hit the Chinese market in 2020 back-to-back. The frequency of Nolan's releases in China led some moviegoers to joke that last year's "Christopher Nolan season" was singularly being used to revive the market.

10. "Spies in Disguise"

A still from "Spies in Disguise" [Photo courtesy of The Walt Disney Studios]

Animated comedy "Spies in Disguise" is the only imported film to enter this list courtesy of earnings garnered from the period before the COVID-19 outbreak. The film, jointly directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, both making their directorial debut, and grossed 103 million yuan in China. Much of the film's success can be put down to the voices of Will Smith and Tom Holland — two of most popular Hollywood actors among Chinese audiences and known for their previous roles in the "Men in Black" and "Spider-Man" franchises, respectively — who buoyed the storyline with their chemistry. "Spies in Disguise" also marked the first release by Blue Sky Studios as a unit of The Walt Disney Company since the latter's purchase of 20th Century Fox. However, it opened to the Chinese market on Jan. 3, 2020, only 20 days before all theaters in the country were shut down due to the epidemic. 

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