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'Pacific Rim Uprising,' an unlikely sequel to a U.S. flop, is betting China will make it a hit

John Boyega stars in the "Pacific Rim: Uprising" trailer.

“Pacific Rim Uprising” is a big-budget sci-fi sequel that almost certainly would not exist without the Chinese box office. Guillermo del Toro’s original 2013 epic “Pacific Rim” was a summer box-office disappointment in the U.S. but a huge hit in China and other countries.

Like the first movie, the sequel is expected to do tepid business domestically. “Uprising,” from Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures, should open with $25 million to $30 million in ticket sales Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys (studio projections are even lower).

It will still probably unseat Marvel Studios’ superhero juggernaut “Black Panther” from the top of the box-office charts. The film has spent five weeks at No. 1 in North America, a streak that had not been achieved since James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster “Avatar.” “Black Panther,” released by Disney, has grossed $1.2 billion worldwide.

But the question is whether global grosses for “Uprising,” which cost an estimated $155 million to make, will be big enough for the movie to turn a profit. That’s where China could play a big role.

Betting on China

A few years ago, it wasn’t clear there would be a sequel.

Del Toro’s special effects-laden “Uprising,” in which humans pilot giant fighting machines to save the world from otherworldly monsters, opened with $37 million in the U.S. and Canada and ended up with a $102-million domestic run, a lackluster result for a movie with big production costs.

However, the Warner Bros.-released movie grossed $309 million internationally, including $112 million in China. Of “Pacific Rim’s” global performance, 75% of its ticket sales came from outside the U.S. and Canada.

“We live in a world now where sequels can be green-lit purely based on the international box office,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at data film ComScore.

The box-office results for “Uprising” could turn out to be even more lopsided, given the growth in the Chinese market. Overall, China’s box office — already the second largest in the world — is still growing, despite a dramatic slowdown that hit the market in 2016. Ticket sales in China rose to $8.47 billion in 2017, up 13% from the prior year, according to film industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway.

Legendary, owned by Beijing-based conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, is releasing “Uprising” in China through its Asia arm Legendary East simultaneously with the U.S. opening. The movie, shot in Australia and China, opens in at least 60 other countries, including Korea and Russia, this weekend.

“Uprising” was directed by Steven S. DeKnight, known for ambitious TV series such as Starz’s “Spartacus” and Netflix’s “Daredevil.” Its diverse cast includes “Star Wars” star John Boyega and Chinese actress Jing Tian. Del Toro, who recently won the best picture Oscar for “The Shape of Water,” is a producer on “Uprising.”

Wherefore art thou Gnomeo?

“Uprising’s” biggest competition this weekend is another unusual sequel, though this one is aimed at children rather than young males. Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer are releasing the computer-animated “Sherlock Gnomes,” the follow-up to the 2011 cartoon “Gnomeo and Juliet,” which was distributed under Walt Disney Co.’s Touchstone label.

“Sherlock Gnomes” is expected to open with about $15 million in the U.S. and Canada, which would be worse than the $25-million debut of the original, but the studios hope the movie will continue to draw kids and their parents through Spring break. As with “Gnomeo,” the London-set sequel was produced by Elton John’s Rocket Pictures.

Sony Pictures’ faith-based label Affirm Films will try to court biblically minded audiences with “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” starring James Faulkner and Jim Caviezel. The $5-million movie is expected to take in $4 million to $9 million through Sunday, and will face substantial competition from Roadside Attractions’ “I Can Only Imagine,” which became a surprise Christian hit last weekend when it opened with $17.1 million.

That leaves the remaining new wide releases to search for box-office scraps. Romantic teen tear-jerker “Midnight Sun,” starring Bella Thorne and distributed by Global Road, is expected to launch with $4 million to $6 million. The latest Steven Soderbergh film, “Unsane,” an R-rated thriller starring Claire Foy, will probably gross up to $4 million, according to analysts.

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