Warcraft big in China due to legion of fans

THE ART OF WAR: Fans like this one at China's premiere of the film in Shanghai are emotionally invested in the story and ignore film reviews.


    Jun 30, 2016

    Warcraft big in China due to legion of fans

    I WAS sitting in a Wanda Imax theatre on the afternoon of June 8 when the opening logos for Warcraft rolled. It started with the so-called dragon logo, China's government seal for any movie - domestic or imported - for public theatrical screening.

    Then came the one for the Chinese distributor, followed by Universal Pictures, which is the United States distributor.

    And then a bevy of Chinese companies that are household names in China.

    I could almost see the pop-up balloons floating virtually above the audience: "Is this a Hollywood movie or is it a Chinese one?"

    The biggest applause came when the opening logos ended with Blizzard Entertainment.

    And I instantly knew who made up the bulk of this audience.

    Yes, they were die-hard fans of the popular video game, by far the most popular in China, according to some figures.

    Warcraft the movie has grossed a billion yuan (S$203.2 million) in its first five days of release. It raked in US$24 million (S$32.4 million) in the North American market.

    Granted, it's not fair to compare the two figures because it opened on a Wednesday in China to take advantage of the Dragon Boat Festival, which is a public holiday.

    But there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the Middle Kingdom is destined to be the biggest market for this particular movie, no matter how you slice it.

    Chinese investors like Tencent and Huayi Brothers are not forthcoming about how much they put into the movie, and the question is complicated by the fact that the production company involved, Legendary Pictures, was acquired by China's Dalian Wanda early this year.

    Sure, the US$160 million project was greenlit long before the acquisition. But from a purely financing point of view, the Chinese stake was substantial from the get-go.

    Conventional wisdom has it that China will overtake North America next year in the size of the film market - the theatrical part, that is.

    This was not the first time an American film performed better in China than on its home turf. Pacific Rim (2013) grossed 694 million yuan in China and a slightly lower US$101 million across the Pacific.

    The difference is, this time, the result was widely anticipated and the gap in box-office receipts much wider than anything we've seen.

    Extrapolating these incidents, you'll see a trend when Hollywood makes movies specially for China. Overseas box-office performance for many of Hollywood's big projects, so-called tentpoles, already accounts for as much as three-fourths of the total.

    And it's quite possible that China, growing by leaps and bounds, will become the No. 1 destination for some of its future offerings.

    But as I see it, they won't be "enhanced Chinese movies".

    Hollywood has experimented with Chinese adaptations of their hits, but they did not work half as well as Chinese fare that's faintly and freely inspired by Hollywood hits.

    Chinese moviegoers do not go to a Hollywood movie for its Chineseness.

    Even cameo appearances by Chinese stars may be nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

    Daniel Wu is in Warcraft but he is not recognisable even by voice. What matters is the legion of characters familiar to Chinese game players, who number 5.8 million on Chinese mainland-based servers.

    According to unofficial estimates, the Chinese user base could be double that since many are on overseas sites.

    The news that Warcraft received predominantly negative reviews in its home country reached China shortly before its debut. But its Chinese partners did not seem worried.

    In China, this is called a "fan film", catering to people who are emotionally invested in the story and oblivious to film reviews.

    To understand the innate power of a fan film, just flip Warcraft with the new Star Wars with its popularity Stateside.

    In both movies, the applause comes at moments that would confound non-fans.

    Another thing in common is a precipitous drop in attendance after the first week.

    We probably need to separate the discussions "Is Warcraft a successful movie?" and "Is it a good one?"

    For the second question, there need not be a single answer.

    For the first, it may take a financial specialist after the dust is settled and the box-office totals come in.