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China Box Office Preview: Can 8 Films Deliver a $1 Billion Lunar New Year Sequel?

Eight Chinese-language films release simultaneously this weekend in mainland China and will vie for a slice of the Lunar New Year holiday box office business.

The week-long nationwide holiday period has in recent years become the most lucrative season for cinemas, and key films stake out their slot in the release calendar months or years in advance.

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The new Chinese films all debut on Saturday (Friday is the normal day for releases in China) and should have an unchallenged two weeks on screen. But if the new Chinese films don’t perform well, there is already a string of new Hollywood releases queuing up for screen time, starting with “Argylle” on Feb. 23.

The week-long holiday this year officially runs Feb. 10-17, but employers are encouraged to give workers time off on Friday, Feb. 9 as well, ostensibly giving city dwellers time to return to their native villages and family seats in the countryside before the official start to festivities. The upheaval is sometimes described as the world’s largest annual migration.

Commentators are divided as to whether the 2024 season will be bigger than last year, when tickets worth $1 billion were sold in what may have been a frenzy of “revenge spending” following a miserable COVID-hit 2022.

Zhang Tong, senior analyst at China’s Maoyan Research Institute, estimates that the 2024 figure could come in at RMB 7-8 billion or $975 million to $1.1 billion. But comparisons may not be on equal footing as the extra dates make this “the longest Spring Holiday ever.”

“Current feedback shows that audiences are relatively positive about the Spring Festival movies this year and we are optimistic about the box office,” Zhang told Variety.

Last year’s top titles were Zhang Yimou’s period comedy drama “Full River Red,” which earned a career total of RMB4.55 billion ($633 million), and blockbuster sci-fi sequel “The Wandering Earth II,” which pulled in RMB4.03 billion ($561 million).

In 2024, both macro and micro conditions may weigh against box office records. At the macro level, China’s economy failed to rebound as strongly as had been hoped after COVID and is beset by a string of problems including the housing sector crisis (which weighs on saving and sentiment), high youth unemployment and strains on international trade. Other commentators point to weather and transport problems as possibly delaying or reducing cinema attendance.

The current crop of new Chinese fare offers fewer franchises than last year and productions made on lower budgets, according to state media. Also, local streaming platforms are offering a rich crop of new titles, thus giving spectators more reason to stay at home.

Pre-sales ticketing data suggests that the two theatrical frontrunners are: “Pegasus 2,” a car-racing comedy sequel to director and former racing driver Han Han’s 2019 hit of the same title, which pulled in $255 million; and “YOLO,” a warm-hearted comedy about appreciating oneself, reportedly adapted from the Japanese film “100 Yen Love.” “YOLO” is the second film by Jia Ling, the newcomer who touched millions of hearts with her time-travel tearjerker “Hi, Mom” at Chinese New Year in 2021. It earned a stunning RMB5.41 billion ($752 million).

Currently tracking in third place is “Article 20,” a light drama from Zhang Yimou that takes its title from the concept of justifiable defense in Chinese criminal law.

Tracking fourth, for now, is “The Movie Emperor,” a satirical comedy in which Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau allows himself to be humiliated and pilloried in a dissection of celebrity in the digital age. Classily directed by reliable hitmaker Ning Hao (“Crazy Racer,” “Crazy Racer”), the film premiered last fall in Toronto and was the closing film of the Busan Festival. But it pushed back its commercial release date and is gambling on China’s upcoming holiday season instead.

“Vida La Vida,” which sees two sick youngsters on a healing journey, is one of the few new-release titles that is not a comedy.

The session will also feature a trio of animation titles – the annual “Boonie Bears” franchise title, this one called “Time Twist” – and “Ba Jie,” directed by He Ranhao about demons, sacred artefacts and the entry to Heaven. “Huang Pi: God of Wealth Cat,” which uses motion capture for an animated tale about a multi-lingual cat who dispenses money, is also in the frame, but appears to have started its promotional campaign later than the others and early data from Maoyan shows it eighth in the pre-sales stakes.

China has the world’s largest installed base of Imax premium large format screens and the company has spent several years encouraging Chinese filmmakers to either shoot with Imax-approved technologies or to screen their finished pictures in its format. Four Chinese movies will show in Imax cinemas over the holiday season: “YOLO,” “Article 20,” “Boonie Bears: Time Twist, and “Pegasus 2.”

“The eventual Chinese New Year winner is sure to come from one of ‘YOLO,’ ‘Pegasus 2’ or ‘Article 20’,” said Maoyan’s Zhang. “Though with parent-child audiences ‘Boonie Bears’ is clearly the preferred choice.”

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