Most pundits have said that Blade Runner 2049 will need to rely on China to put it in the black, but this will not happen.
By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large
Blade Runner 2049 will most likely play out like Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant($28MM opening, $48MM final) or Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk ($30MM opening, $50MM final), than compared to other “soft” sci-fi hits such as Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity($36MM opening, $71MM final) or Ridley Scott’s (other film) The Martian ($34MM opening, $95MM final).
As Arrival has not solidified Denis Villeneuve’s reputation in China, as Interstellar and Inception had for Christopher Nolan, but I am not expecting an Arrival level of opening ($7MM opening, $15MM total). Though it would not be a surprise to see a $15-$18MM opening for Blade Runner 2049 as worse case scenario, with a similar box-office drop off of near or above 80% from the likes of Dunkirk, Covenant, or even, loved-by-China, Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.
High concept / hard sci-fi films traditionally do not play well in China. There is a core sci-fi base in China, with acclaimed writers such as Han Song (The Last Subway aka Subway, and The Wheel of Samsara) having a dedicated but minimal fan-base, and while the number is growing, it is not enough to put Blade Runner 2049 over the edge.
For these reasons, Blade Runner 2049 will play similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a $28MM opener with a steep 86% second weekend box-office, than the leggy Gravity, $36MM opening $71MM final, at the China box-office.
Though Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best movies of the year, and will probably follow the trend of Denis Villeneuve’s previous films Sicario and Arrival, with multiple Oscar nods for Sound Design / Editing, Production Design, Visual Effects (I’m still wondering how much is practical, along the lines of miniatures?) and Cinematography (holy crap, Roger Deakins! – plus, was it all shot and formated on digital? It had a filmic analog look at times, and others it did not.). Plus, it may have introduced me to my next favorite actress since, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Anya Taylor-Joy, in the form of Cuban and Spanish actress Ana de Armas. Who is incredibly striking in the film.
Sci-fi, in theory, is big business in China, but not all sci-fi applies. As Blade Runner 2049is “hard science fiction”, meaning that, even though it is a big budget spectacle, its motivating force is its “high concept” appeal. Something that only Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has successfully pulled off at the China box-office.
Interstellar had two things going for it, that makes it stand out from the rest of the crowd; One, it was Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi follow-up to his hit sci-fi Inception, a film that shook China moviegoers with its blend of high concept with stunning and exhilarating action sequences. A combination Chinese audiences had never experienced before, as films like, The Matrix, were before a time of the China box-office boom. Two, Inception came out during the height of the rise of the China box-office boom itself, for a $68MM total.
Interstellar in 2014 came out two years before the China box-office crash of 2016 and 2017 (Wolf Warriors 2, does not constitute that 2017 is a successful box-office year for China. As it is an anomaly and not the norm.), leading to an impressive $122MM total.
A total that it would not come close to reaching, if the movie was released in 2017. As the film came out during a wave of “realistic” sci-fi films; Gravity and The Martian($95MM), and is arguably the first high concept / hard sci-fi spectacle released in China. In itself, a movie going experience that does not translate to 2nd, 3rd, and now, 4th tiered city audiences.
As we can see, high concept films, even with a sci-fi and a Chinese angle to them, such as Denis Villenueve’s previous film Arrival ($7MM opening, $15MM final – which is still good!), have a limited base to them. While Blade Runner 2049 will be able to attract, not only this hard sci-fi base, but some general audiences as well, mostly because of Ryan Gosling than Harrison Ford, this will not be enough to save Blade Runner 2049 from the red.
Is it just me, or would the alien writing in Arrival, helped the China box-office do better if it did not resemble the Japanese Ensō so much??? – I’m sure nobody but me noticed, this potential subconscious response from Chinese audience!
I would expect to see a decent, and good for China, opening of the $25-30MM range, but I would not be surprised to see a $15-18MM opening, but either way we should expect a Dunkirk or Alien: Covenant second weekend / ten day drop-off. Than a leggier run of Arrival or Gravity.
UPDATE: Blade Runner 2049 posted a final box-office total of $11.65MMUSD in China – a very good run.
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About the Author
Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.