For many studio heads, these days, glancing at how their latest movie did in China is in some ways more important than seeing how it did in North America. That is because things are changing drastically for an industry in which the domestic box office had been considered the true indicator of a movie's worth for over a century.
Since the early 2000s, the movie market in China has gone from almost non-existent to second behind only the US. And it could become No 1 by 2020, as movie theatres continue to be built at a hurried pace to feed the interest of not just the Hollywood titles but those made by the country's burgeoning home-grown production industry.
Everyone in Hollywood is trying to figure out how to navigate this sea change. Which stories work best? Which are duds? And which movie stars can rake in the cash?
That last one has become an easy answer: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
His latest CGI (and testosterone) heavy blockbuster, Rampage, won the US box office over the weekend with a US$35.8 million take for its studio Warner Bros. But what the movie did in China has the studio ecstatic, as it took in US$55.2 million there as part of a US$115.7 million international gross.
But this is far from an overnight success. The Rock has been big in China for a while.
Dominance years in the making
Johnson's elevation to a global box-office draw came when he joined the Fast and the Furious franchise with 2011's Fast Five. But his potential worth in China expanded dramatically over the next few years.
THANK YOU CHINA (from me and big George) for this massive love and support bringing in my biggest box opening ever in the Middle Kingdom and Warner Bros 2nd biggest opening of all time. This one means a lot. I’ve worked extremely hard over the years to establish a real global relationship with every country around the world - including China. Years ago when I set out to establish myself globally, I knew the odds were stacked against me, because I wasn’t going into all these territories around the world as a superhero for Marvel or DC or an established IP backing me like a Harry Potter, Hunger Games etc. I was going around the world as just me, Dwayne Johnson - the big, brown, bald, tattooed human being. Who laughs a lot, drinks a lil’ too much and cusses even more. Stayed focused on my long term plan. 15 long years later - here we are. #ThankYouCHINA #BiggestOpeningEver #RAMPAGE
A post shared by therock (@therock) on Apr 16, 2018 at 12:55am PDT
In 2013, Fast & Furious 6 became the first movie in the Universal franchise to play in China – though years' worth of bootlegs of the previous movies were undoubtedly floating around the country. It took in a respectable US$66.5 million there. But when Furious 7 played there in 2015, it went gangbusters, taking in US$391 million in China. A few months later, Johnson showed he didn't need the "Fast" fam to make it in China, where San Andreas went on to earn US$103.2 million.
The next movie starring Johnson that went to China was the 2016 animated film Moana (US$32.7 million), and then in 2017 The Fate of the Furious found incredible success there with US$392.8 million, helping the movie earn US$1.2 billion worldwide.
With audiences in China already getting a glimpse of Johnson this year when Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle opened there in January (US$78 million), the US$55 million Rampage opening suggests it doesn't matter whether he's with an ensemble or solo: They want to see Johnson.
"Johnson continues to prove that he is the most bankable star in the world with his growing global appeal," says the comScore box-office analyst, Paul Dergarabedian. "It's hard to imagine any other star who could have catapulted Rampage to a nearly US$150 million worldwide debut."
But in an indication of just how important China is, The Rock made sure to spend some time there before Rampage opened.
Mr Johnson goes to Shanghai
It's pretty standard to tour the globe for publicity on a major Hollywood release, but when you're a huge star like Johnson, the hustle can be narrowed down to some key regions. And Warner Bros made sure one of Johnson's stops was in China.
It’s all in my charm.. and bribery. Huge RAMPAGE press conference in Shanghai and they bring out these adorable little humans dressed as our three Rampage monsters. They were terrified of me until I said “BIG HUG” in Mandarin, then the hugs commenced. Truth is I bribed these kids with chocolate, candy and free college tuition to not embarrass me in front of the press. It worked. #SHANGHAI #RAMPAGE #WorldTour #BriningLittleHumans
A post shared by therock (@therock) on Apr 9, 2018 at 1:48am PDT
Johnson went on a promotional tour in Shanghai for Rampage, his first time visiting the country's largest city, a studio source says.
And the way he was treated, he's certain to return.
The movie's press conference in the city was live-streamed through multiple partners across the country, there was a fan screening in Shanghai's biggest theatre, and Johnson extended his likability across all ages after he befriended three children who were dressed as the three monsters from the movie during the press conference (the movie is based on a popular video game in which giant monsters destroy cities.
"Dwayne, or ‘Johnson’, as they call him in China, was in great spirits and charmed all of the audiences with his signature enthusiasm and humour," the source says.
Along with the US$55 million opening weekend, Rampage took in US$15.7 million on its opening day in China, the third-highest opening day ever for a Warner Bros movie in the country.
Imagine being a 12yr old boy who goes to see RAMPAGE with his family on his BIRTHDAY. THEN... The Rock shows up outta nowhere and surprises the entire theater.. AND THEN winds up singing happy birthday to the birthday boy. Should’ve seen the look on Vinny’s face when I was singing to him and shook his hand. Great birthday moment surprising fans last night at screenings of RAMPAGE. He was so nervous he forgot how old he was Its all good kid, I forget how old I am too. That’s why I always act like a kid. #SurprisingFans #YouNeverKnowWhenDJWillPopUp #BestPartOfMyJob #RAMPAGE
A post shared by therock (@therock) on Apr 15, 2018 at 3:07pm PDT
"Dwayne Johnson and giant monsters – that's the perfect recipe for a hit in China these days," says Jeff Bock, a senior analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was the tipping point for Rampage getting green-lit in the first place."
In an era when the mega movie stars are considered less of a draw than a good superhero movie with "regular" stars, Johnson is showing he's an exception to the trend. He is already a household name in the US, and he's ahead of most stars in conquering China.