Black Widow’s Chinese problem sounds alarm bells for Hollywood

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The US film industry breathes a sigh of relief that “Black Widow” is poised to become the highest grossing domestic film of the post-pandemic era, marking America’s comeback in theaters.

The Scarlett Johansson star is expected to earn around $ 80 million in its opening weekend in North America, beating “F9” last month. It will also premiere in 46 overseas markets, grossing an expected $ 50 million.

China, however, is not on the list.

The image of “Black Widow” is far from rosy in the world’s largest film market, where politics once again trumps profit, and piracy can destroy its chances of winning at the box office before it managed to reach Chinese shores.

Although Chinese censorship authorities approved the release of “Black Widow” in March, Marvel has yet to give a release date indication for the key territory. (Hong Kong, meanwhile, was actually one of the first territories in the world to release it on July 7, thanks to its Asian time zone.)

A late release in China could be a source of problems. Disney Plus does not work in China. When the streaming service released the film online for $ 30 in other territories on Friday, it released an easily pirated high-definition version of the film that reached Chinese consumers within hours.

“From today all kinds of pirated versions of ‘Black Widow’ will start to spread quickly,” wrote one movie blogger in resignation. “Even if it hits theaters later, it will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the box office.”

From Friday morning, Variety found dozens of pirated videos and torrents already available on unauthorized Chinese file-sharing and streaming sites, though their initial origins are unclear. On some illegal sites powered by online gaming advertisements, many are available to stream for free without any registration or download, via a single click.

Many pirated copies are listed in 1080p or 4K HD quality, or equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. Most are already equipped with Chinese subtitles, which are often created by groups of volunteers or fast-moving fans before the official translation is released.

On one of the major fan-generated subtitle websites, at least nine different versions of the Chinese “Black Widow” subtitles were available on the homepage alone, which can be associated with different versions of the film. pirate. The site states that “subtitles are only used for language learning purposes; copyright belongs to film production.

The same piracy issue plagued Disney’s $ 200 million live-action film in China, giving rise to hopes that the story in China of a classic Chinese folk tale with an Asian cast would become a smash hit there. It raked in a lackluster opening weekend of $ 23 million and $ 41 million in cume, albeit with significant capacity restrictions on theaters due to COVID-19.

Death sentence for “Black Widow” in China?

From a purely economic point of view, China’s postponement of infallible “Black Widow” commercial success does not make sense, especially since its box office has been declining since June, when it reached a record monthly low.

The country notched a number of box office records earlier this year with local vacation blockbuster hits, but rescheduled Hollywood tent poles and dwindling number of lucrative local productions have slowed business down. The film industry‘s political obligations for July are slowing it down even further.

As a general rule, Beijing tends to schedule Hollywood blockbusters sparingly during key July movie month to make room for local productions. This year, its resistance to programming foreign films was exacerbated by the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party on July 1. The occasion was accompanied by a month-long period of militant censorship in all media that will last through the end of the month and possibly into the fall.

With these factors in mind, local reports have long predicted a death sentence for Chinese “Black Widow” prospects.

“The possibility of a simultaneous exit is approaching zero. In this special [July] tribute month, same ‘main melody’ [propagandistic] films like ‘Chinese Doctors’ are subject to strict censorship, not to mention Hollywood films, ”wrote a blogger pessimistically in June.

Beijing considers it politically paramount that the Party’s propaganda tribute films rule over their competition this month. While melodramatic titles have been widely promoted, unsurprisingly they haven’t proven to be popular enough to generate Marvel-level ticket sales.

The main Chinese titles for July are the political history films “1921” and “The Pioneer”, which grossed only $ 58 million (RMB 376 million) and $ 15.4 million (RMB 100 million). ) so far, respectively, since their debut on July 1. The group’s most commercial blockbuster is the pandemic blockbuster backed by Bona Film “Chinese Doctors”. He had a muted opening of $ 14.4 million on Friday, taking what would have been the “Black Widow” slot if he had opened day and date with the United States and emerged as a bad substitute.

Unverifiable local reports speculate that “Black Widow” may not be released in China until mid-August, when there could be a sudden influx of Hollywood films that could end up cannibalizing each other’s box office.

Disney did not respond to a request for comment on the circumstances of its release date or piracy issues.

Limbo release date

The “Black Widow” situation highlights the growing challenges Hollywood faces in the post-pandemic era, as Beijing and Washington view each other with growing mistrust and new digital distribution models disrupt long-standing practices. several decades.

Increasingly, foreign films find themselves in release date limbo or pulled unexpectedly due to China’s ever-changing political winds and local programming priorities. (For example, censors approved Pixar’s “Luca” in late May, but it has yet to debut.)

When cinema windows of at least three months were still observed, digital or Blu-ray releases did not have a significant impact on the Chinese box office of the film, as imports are not allowed to be released anyway. play in Chinese theaters only for one to two months, regardless of success.

If Hollywood’s pandemic-era adoption of previously unthinkable online distribution methods is here to stay, piracy will become a growing problem. It will become increasingly important for films seeking to secure the strongest sales possible in China to either release there before other territories or open simultaneously with their streaming debuts.

A growing number of tents with guaranteed Chinese audiences have already taken this approach, such as “Avengers: Endgame,” which gave China a two-day head start over the United States, or “F9,” which been prompted by the pandemic to create an unprecedented full month before domestic.

Setting a date in China has become increasingly difficult as bureaucratic processes and priorities become tighter and more opaque, meaning companies may have to initiate censorship review processes even earlier.

Warner Bros. ‘ “Dune” can avoid a “Black Widow” puzzle. Had the film debuted on October 1 as originally planned, it would have run into China’s highly political National Day on the same day, when it would have been ruled out of a day-and-date release and possibly postponed. in the next two weeks. in order to give the new nationalist blockbusters time to sell themselves.

That the decision to move it to October 22 was intentionally made with the Chinese market in mind, bodes well.

“Maintaining good relationships to secure release dates, fight piracy, and deploy strong tactics to boost word of mouth will be the most critical tasks for revenue-sharing Hollywood films in the future, especially for revenue-sharing Hollywood movies going forward. films scheduled for simultaneous release both in theaters and online, ”said a well-regarded local media outlet in the film industry. “Otherwise, more and more shared-income movies will repeat the mistakes of ‘Mulan’ and ‘Black Widow’, driving Hollywood’s profits down in China.”


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