How ‘Detective Chinatown 3’ Became A Box Office Sensation & What The Middle Kingdom’s Resurgence Means For The Global Theatrical Industry

In the span of six days, the Chinese box office roared to a $1.2B Lunar New Year record, with Wanda PicturesDetective Chinatown 3 setting global benchmarks for the biggest opening day and weekend in a single market.

This happened even as some Covid restrictions remain in place in the Middle Kingdom. While the pandemic rages on in other parts of the world, how did DC3 achieve such unprecedented heights, and what does it mean for a backlog of Hollywood tentpoles that’s primed to hit China, global and, notably, domestic cinemas once the situation elsewhere is controlled?

Clearly, China has become synonymous with outsize grosses, and the Chinese New Year period is perennially lucrative. But this month’s performance hopefully serves as an indicator of recovery that will extend to other markets as they get back up and running with new product.

Indeed, the CNY numbers left some in Hollywood agog. However, rather than a sort of cynical envy, what we’re hearing is optimism and encouragement on the part of studio execs (I received a number of excited emails from L.A. as the China grosses grew all across last weekend). The execs we’ve spoken with since believe China is demonstrating that when people feel safe and there is shiny new product on offer, audiences will return to cinemas in droves.

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So how did Detective Chinatown 3 make such hay during a still-restrictive period? It certainly showed the strength of the franchise as it went on to cross $550M on the sixth day of the New Year holiday frame, taking the trilogy’s local total to $1.2B — and counting. The performance is indicative of the more sophisticated filmmaking that is happening in the Middle Kingdom. Director Chen Sicheng, we’ve heard it said many times, is a true professional with a remarkable amount of control on set.

DC3 producer Shawn Xiang Yue tells me that the experience of making Detective Chinatown 2 in New York a few years back taught the filmmakers how to adapt to American standards. Indeed, the production applied IATSE regs to DC3 and even has tried to “Marvel-ize” the films with end-credit Easter eggs that tease upcoming installments. To wit: DC3 includes a shot of the London skyline at the end, and even though there is no official deal for a DC4, the hope is to shoot in the UK eventually and utilize more international talent, as well as potentially creating spinoffs à la the Fast & Furious franchise.

There also was a combination of factors that came together in a sort of perfect storm for DC3. The film originally was due to release at Chinese New Year 2020 — having presold RMB 200M ($31M) before China went into Covid lockdown. Those advance sales were refunded — Yue calls it a “corona raincheck” — and the film ultimately presold $150M tickets this year, to set a new record amid the wannasee element. The delayed release, a finance source said, “is evident of the pent-up demand for event pictures.” This person expects to see “a similar box office exposition [worldwide] post-Covid-19.”

Further, people typically travel home from afar to reunite with family during CNY, but this year the government advised that folks should stay put in an effort to control any lingering potential spread of the disease. This left people with little else to do than go to the movies during a seven-day break from work. Ticket prices also were elevated during CNY, which helped boost grosses despite 75% and 50% capacity restrictions in certain areas. Also, despite some griping that box office is being artificially inflated — which certainly has happened in the past — we are assured that this is not the case here.

One of the most savvy moves that the DC3 filmmakers made was to be patient. “We resisted pressure to release earlier,” Yue said. A U.S.-based distribution exec fully agrees. “By waiting for Chinese New Year, they maximized,” the person said. “They brilliantly executed a very patient and smart plan for that movie. They didn’t succumb to streaming or say, ‘Hey, here’s a clear window.’ It was a really, really smart move.”

The DC3 team already had done a promotional tour in 2019-20 and didn’t travel this year but ramped up online marketing, with the stars taking part in social media events as well as a new series of trailers, a making-of and a compilation video that mashed-up scenes from the first two films to tap into fan nostalgia.

Also helping was bringing in well-known international talent. On DC3, Thai superstar Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak, Furious 7, Monster Hunter) joined the Tokyo shoot, and the action star tells me he was happy for the opportunity to be seen as a comic actor. He was a big fan of the first two movies, particularly as DC1 shot in Thailand – which, incidentally, resulted in a tourism boost in the country. He calls director Chen “a really smart guy” and believes that the success of DC3 was helped in a way by the one-year delay. “People were waiting for this movie,” Jaa said.

The “strong audience foundation of hardcore fans” was key to the movie’s success this past week, but producer Yue also points to other factors. When cinema reopenings began in July, the government mandated that all tickets must be purchased online, he explained. That created some anxiety around being able to get seats, particularly given the capacity restrictions, and therefore helped drive presales.

Would such a requirement work in the U.S.? Yue isn’t so sure. Because the process entails registering an application with personal details, Americans might be more reticent. But, he opined, “Hypothetically, if people agreed, it would be good because it becomes traceable. People know what time exactly they should go to the cinema and the theaters would know exactly what time people are coming. Both would feel safer.”

By waiting for Chinese New Year, they maximized. They brilliantly executed a very patient and smart plan for that movie. They didn’t succumb to streaming or say, ‘Hey, here’s a clear window.’ It was a really, really smart move.
— U.S. distribution exec on ‘DC3’

Given the Detective Chinatown films are what Yue calls the first Chinese franchise that is “up to the Hollywood standard, people have high expectations.” His ambition is to “create a Detective Chinatown universe, similar to Marvel.” The success of DC3has also given the filmmakers, “the confidence to keep producing the Hollywood way.” The New York experience on DC2 taught the filmmakers how below-the-line workers are protected under SAG and IATSE rules. Those were implemented on DC3, “We didn’t issue a written book,” he said, “but if we want to continue making these films globally and want to work with international talent, we need to adapt.”

DC3, Yue said, could be an opportunity for Hollywood “to look at China from a different point of view. We have the infrastructure to make big blockbuster films.” He hopes the film will spur more American talent to work with China from a project’s inception and “see us as a partner, real fellow filmmakers to work with creatively.”

Still, it’s important to remember that what happened in China this past week didn’t come overnight. When cinemas began reopening in July, the market brought in import titles whose releases had been delayed by Covid and modern-classic library movies to get audiences used to returning to theaters. Once the market was primed, China released The Eight Hundred to huge results in mid-August. The patriotic October National Day films also performed well, and Christmas had some bona fide hits. That got the market ready for CNY.

While the U.S. has big moviegoing spots on the calendar like Fourth of July weekend, summer and Christmas, a Hollywood distribution exec said, “What happened in China is unique to China. We don’t have a Chinese New Year, so I’m not expecting records to be broken right away. Once the [domestic Covid] cases and death count go down significantly, and it feels like life is going back to normal, that’s when we’ll start seeing big box office numbers again.”

China’s not alone in getting back on its feet. We’ve seen similar situations in Japan and Korea over the past several months, though those markets have had ebbs and flows. The U.S., conversely, an exhibition source said, “has been such a clusterf*ck for so long, it’s not like all of a sudden things get better overnight. It’s going to require a couple of months of immunizing people. We could have 200 million people vaccinated by July 4. If people feel safe, there will be massive amounts of people going out, but maybe not right at the beginning.”

Another studio exec who has long worked with international, is not surprised by the success of CNY, saying, “China released good commercial movies at the right time of year.” Government messaging also might have played a part, this person opines, “There’s something to be said for centralized information.”

Analysts and Wall Street stood at attention after the opening weekend. Imax saw its shares rise sharply early this week, as Detective Chinatown 3 is the latest big-budget feature to shoot with its cameras. Eric Wold of B. Riley Securities wrote that the Lunar New Year success “only demonstrates the power of the theatrical window for blockbuster films — and a reason to hold onto a film vs. pivoting too early to make the film available on streaming platforms. We also believe this highlights the box office opportunity for an exceptional portfolio of films that have been delayed from 2020 and early 2021 into the second half of 2021 and 2022.”

Chinese moviegoers are sending a clear message that they missed the experience of gathering together to be entertained, and we know that moviegoers around the world will not be far behind.
— Wanda Cinemas’ John Zheng

The Global Cinema Federation, which reps the exhibition community worldwide, celebrated DC3, touting that “control of the Covid-19 virus, loosened restrictions and compelling new movies can return moviegoing to normal levels and beyond.” Wanda Cinemas’ John Zheng noted, “Chinese moviegoers are sending a clear message that they missed the experience of gathering together to be entertained, and we know that moviegoers around the world will not be far behind.”

USC professor and China expert Stanly Rosen believes that this success “might help revive co-productions, but the problem — aside from the fact that they generally don’t do well in both China and internationally — is the box office receipts within China for such films would normally go to the Chinese partner.” Still, while he believes pictures like the next James Bond, Black Widow and others that have built a following in the market, “should still do relatively well,” he adds.

“Now that China has learned a good deal about storytelling, animation and special effects from Hollywood, combined with restrictive government policies, the days of Hollywood getting more than 50% of the market have come and gone,” Rosen said. “If they could get back 40%, it would be a great victory. Even before the pandemic, the numbers were dropping every year. … Hollywood may need China more than ever, but China needs Hollywood less than ever.”


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