“The Eight Hundred” has marched out ahead of all competitors at the China box office with earnings reminiscent of pre-COVID times, grossing $75.7 million over its opening weekend, according to data from industry tracker Maoyan. This brings its cume since last week’s previews up to $119 million.
Helmer Guan Hu’s retelling of a historic standoff between Chinese and Japanese soldiers in 1930s Shanghai is the first truly new blockbuster to hit the China market since coronavirus shut cinemas down in late January. In the five weeks since Chinese theaters reopened in late July, the titles available to viewers have been either re-releases of older fare, or Hollywood films that released months ago in other countries and have already circulated amongst many viewers illegally online.
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“The Eight Hundred” should have released last summer, but was pulled at the last minute due to censorship concerns. The version now in theaters is 13 minutes shorter than the one that would have screened last year.
Chinese commentators have attributed its explosive success to “an upsurge of people’s patriotic enthusiasm during the pandemic period.”
On the more populist Maoyan app, where the title has a 9.2 out of 10 rating, people mostly said they liked the film because it was emotionally stirring. When selecting key phrases to describe why they enjoyed it, they chose “moving plot,” “a rousing ending,” and many “tearjerking moments” as factors far more than they selected other factors like “good script,” “good creativity,” or “good production values.”
“A blood-boiling patriotic education film, which allows us us to once again feel the bloody fighters’ feeling of connection to their home country!” wrote one of the most popular user reviews.
Another said bluntly that to complain about the film was unpatriotic and therefore unacceptable, writing: “Only people who are ****** would go about insulting [this film], people who don’t even know which country’s people they are,” using stars to denote an unfavorable descriptor.
All other titles this weekend trailed far behind “The Eight Hundred,” with only two others crossing the $1 million mark.
Its closest competitor was a 4K restored re-release of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which grossed $4.2 million this weekend, its second in theaters. This brings its 2020 China cume up to $24 million.
Newer Hollywood films didn’t fare much better. “Onward,” which debuted in China mid-week on Wednesday, Aug. 18, grossed $1.96 million in its first weekend in theaters to come in third. Its current cume for the territory is now $2.7 million.
Meanwhile, “Trolls World Tour” premiered Friday to a weekend gross of merely $554,000.
Other Hollywood films also did only a whimper of business, including “Bad Boys for Life” ($414,000), “Interstellar” ($370,000), and fellow war film “1917” ($214,000).
A factor contributing to their poor performance is that most of the screenings were allocated to “The Eight Hundred.” That film accounted for an average of 60% of total screenings nationwide over the weekend, while “Trolls” had around around 4%, “Onward” around 6%, and “Harry Potter” around 11.5%.
The ratio of how many screenings will be given to one film over another may be subject to much backroom wheeling and dealing, but ultimately comes down to cinemas’ own belief that a particular title will make them money.
Now that “The Eight Hundred” has broken the ice, other local blockbusters will likely be encouraged by its performance to start setting release dates again. Already upcoming are two competitive Chinese new year titles that had previously been pulled due to COVID: animation “Jiang Zi Ya” and Peter Chan’s volleyball drama “Leap,” both set to debut during early October National Day holiday.
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