‘Warcraft,’ probably a U.S. dud, seeks profitability via China

Film adaptations of massively popular video games are still a tough sell in the U.S. But with their new big-budget movie “Warcraft,” Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures are betting they can take over the rest of the world.

The movie, which cost an estimated $160 million to make, has all the hallmarks of a major summer box-office bomb. Reviews have been decidedly negative for the picture. Video games have traditionally struggled to make the transition to the big screen, and the effects-heavy production boasts little recognizable star power.

Yet, as is becoming increasingly common as Hollywood adapts to the global marketplace, the movie’s iffy prospects in the U.S. are only part of the story.

“Warcraft” has already taken in a healthy $75 million in ticket sales internationally less than two weeks into its rollout, and there are signs that it will be a big hit in China, home of the world’s fastest-growing film industry. That could help make the movie profitable, despite weak ticket sales in the U.S.

“’Warcraft has to be looked at on a global basis,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore. “With this kind of movie, that’s what really matters. The international box office can be the savior of your movie.”


If it indeed pulls off powerful sales in China and the rest of the world, “Warcraft” would mark the latest example of a U.S. flop rescued by the burgeoning international marketplace. Last year’s “Terminator: Genisys” from Paramount was an undeniable disappointment in the states, but a robust international run brought the film’s global total to a solid $440 million.

“Warcraft” is pulling out all the stops to become a blockbuster in China. While Universal is distributing the picture in North America, Legendary and China Film Group are handling the Chinese release.

Legendary has an advantage in that country. It recently sold to Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, owner of the nation’s largest theater chain, for $3.5 billion. The company, led by billionaire Wang Jianlin, is giving the film a huge push across China, where it opens Wednesday.

The movie will play in a record-setting 67.5% of theater screens in mainland China, higher than previous record-holder “Furious 7.” China’s cinema industry has hit about 39,000 screens, and is increasing. The saturation clearly helped “Furious 7” in the territory, where it hauled in a stunning $391 million. Legendary is hoping “Warcraft” will enjoy similar success.

“Some blockbusters are made, not born,” Dergarabedian said. “They’re going to turn that thing into a blockbuster.”

There’s a limit to how much U.S. studios can benefit from the growth of the Chinese box office. The China government restricts the number of foreign films allowed into the country’s theaters each year under revenue-sharing agreements, and studios collect only 25% of box-office revenues on those titles.

That still hasn’t dissuaded Hollywood companies from doing deals with Chinese firms for co-financing and marketing of movies. China-based companies Tencent, Huayi Bros. and Taihe partnered with Legendary for “Warcraft.”

Targeting Chinese moviegoers may prove a smart strategy for “Warcraft,” based on the multiplayer strategy game “World of Warcraft” from Irvine-headquartered publisher Blizzard Entertainment. The game is hugely popular in China, with half its 5 million players located there.

Legendary said that ticket presales in the country have totaled more than $20 million as of Monday, giving it the second-highest advanced ticket sales of all time for midnight screenings behind “Furious 7.”

In contrast, U.S. audiences are not expected to flock to “Warcraft.”

The movie is likely to gross around $25 million in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, a modest sum given the film’s hefty production costs. Critics have been unkind to “Warcraft,” giving it a paltry 16% positive rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Director Duncan Jones is the son of the late rock music legend David Bowie.

“It’s dead in the water,” said box-office analyst Jeff Bock of tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. “It wants to be ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones.’ But it looks like ‘John Carter’ crossed with ‘Battlefield Earth.’”

“Warcraft’s” domestic opening probably will finish far behind the debut for Warner Bros.-New Line Cinema’s “The Conjuring 2,” which could hit $35 million to $40 million in its first three days.

Director James Wan’s $40-million sequel to his 2013 horror hit “The Conjuring” has earned generally positive reviews and is tracking well with moviegoers, according to people who have reviewed pre-release audience surveys. The original picture opened to about $42 million and ended its strong run with $137 million in the U.S. and Canada.

Fellow newcomer “Now You See Me 2” is also expected to generate robust business this weekend. The Lionsgate sequel to the 2013 sleeper hit about a team of criminal magicians is expected to open with $23 million to $25 million. That would be similar to the opening of its predecessor, which went on to take in $117 million domestically. The new movie cost $90 million to make.

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