How 'Warcraft' took China's box office by storm last week

Bolstered by a bevy of marketing partners and the exhibition muscle of its parent company’s cinema chain, Legendary Entertainment’s “Warcraft” smashed its way into the box-office record books last week in China, earning $156 million in its first five days in theaters.

The long-awaited fantasy film based on Blizzard Entertainment’s popular “Warcraft” video game series occupied nearly two-thirds of all screens on the mainland upon its opening Wednesday, with 120,000 screenings alone on its first day in theaters – a record, according to Dalian Wanda, which purchased Legendary this year.

The opening-week performance of “Warcraft” already has outstripped the entire China runs of other major Hollywood films released this year including “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Kung Fu Panda 3.” And the movie’s China receipts have been some six times greater than its domestic earnings.  

In China, the movie benefited from a release over the Dragon Boat Festival holiday and a near-simultaneous dating with its U.S. debut, not to mention strong pre-awareness because the video game is very popular in China. Stars Daniel Wu and Paula Patton and director Duncan Jones promoted the film in Beijing ahead of its opening.

Legendary began its “Warcraft” project a decade ago, long before anyone ever imagined that Thomas Tull’s Hollywood company would be bought by Chinese real estate behemoth Wanda for $3.5 billion in January. More than a year before the movie’s release, Legendary lined up financial backers in China, including Internet giant Tencent, state-run China Film Group and the Huayi Bros. studio.

In addition, Legendary inked deals with more than two dozen major marketing partners including Jeep, Intel, Lenovo, an insurance company and an herbal tea maker, resulting in a juggernaut of promotional muscle.

“Many of the decision-makers at these brands were ‘Warcraft’ players,” said Peter Loehr, chief executive of Legendary East, Legendary’s China arm. 

“People think this would just sell itself,” Loehr added. “But it actually took a lot of work. Movies get dated very late in China, maybe six weeks out. That makes it problematic to bring in brands. What if the film doesn’t come out or gets pushed back? … Luckily, the brands were willing to take the ride with us.”

Wanda’s purchase of Legendary earlier this year only added momentum, Loehr said. “That became the ultimate resource for the movie,” he said.

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 “Warcraft” crossed the 1 billion renminbi threshold (about $156 million) in 114 hours, Wanda said.

The company arranged a variety of screening options that appealed to fans, allowing them, for example, to be seated in a theater where all the other patrons were on their preferred team of Orcs or humans.  

Chen Yu, a 24-year-old “Warcraft” gaming fan from Shanghai, said he and some friends had been anticipating the film’s release for years and went on opening night.

“Some of them even wore costumes to the theater,” he said. “It’s like a theater version of Comic-Con; it’s like a festival for us fans.”

“Warcraft” far outpaced all other films in the seven days ending Sunday. “X-Men: Apocalypse” took in $38.6 million and the movie is approaching $100 million in China, according to film industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway.

Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” added $6.7 million more to its tally, bringing its cumulative gross to $56.5 million in China.

In fourth place for the week was the animated “Angry Birds” film from Rovio Entertainment with $5.5 million; that was followed by the local film “Toys War” with just $1 million in tickets sold.

Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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