“Transformers: Age of Extinction” broke multiple box-office records in mainland China in its first weekend of release and appears to be en route to displacing “Avatar” as the top-grossing film ever on the mainland.
The Paramount Pictures juggernaut rolled into Chinese theaters in the wee hours of Friday morning and racked up nearly $27 million (166 million renminbi) by the day's end -- the biggest opening day for any film ever in China, according to estimates from Shanghai-based film industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway. Through Sunday, the film had grossed nearly $97 million (600 million renminbi), a record three-day opening for any film ever in China, Artisan said. That's nearly equal to its opening-weekend haul in the U.S.
The fourth film in the "Transformers" series shattered the records set this year by the local production "The Monkey King," which took in 133.8 million renminbi on its opening day and grossed 327 million renminbi during its first three days in theaters over the Chinese new year holiday, Artisan said.
"Avatar" grossed 1.39 billion renminbi when it was released in 2010, or about $224 million at today's exchange rate.
The first three installments of "Transformers" performed strongly in China, and Paramount and director Michael Bay began laying the groundwork for the fourth film's release on the mainland early. They cast several Chinese actors in the film, shot in Hong Kong and other cities, inked multiple product-placement deals with Chinese consumer brands, and held a flashy premiere in Hong Kong on June 19.
The film closed the Shanghai International Film Festival on June 22 and a Beijing premiere was held June 23.
Though the massive box-office take for the movie was undoubtedly welcome news to Paramount and Chinese theater chains, Chinese regulators have expressed some misgivings about the film's dominance at the nation's cinemas.
Speaking at a conference on growth of domestic movies in China on the eve of the film's opening, a senior regulatory official asked cinemas to book theaters "rationally" and not to put "Transformers: Age of Extinction" on nearly all screens.
"About 50 days ago, Chinese movies accounted for 63% of the overall box office in China [in 2014]. But after tonight, that will fall under 50%," said Zhang Hongsen, head of the Film Bureau at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.
But it seems Zhang's comments had little effect on cinema chains. Many theaters showed the Paramount film on over 60% of their screens, with some outlets reserving more than 70% of all screenings for the film.
Many Chinese now in their 20s and 30s grew up watching "Transformers" cartoons on TV and are very well acquainted with the franchise.
After taking in the film this weekend, many Chinese viewers couldn't help but remark on the extensive Chinese product-placement deals in the film. Among the Chinese brands that appear in the movie are the liquor Jian Nanchun, Yili milk, the Pangu Plaza Hotel, China Construction Bank and Guangzhou Auto.
"I went to watch [Chinese actor] Han Geng," one viewer wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social network. "But his screen time was even less than the Chinese milk."
Another questioned the rationale for some of the product placements and pointed out a few details that didn't quite square for Chinese audiences.
"Why would a middle-aged man in the middle of the desert in Texas take out a China Construction Bank card to withdraw money from the ATM?" the Weibo user wrote.
And noting that some cars in the film that were supposed to be in Hong Kong -- where the rules of the road are like Britain's, thanks to the city's history as a British colony -- he added: "Why do all the cars that fought in Hong Kong have their [steering] wheels on the left?"
Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.