BEIJING -- China's battle of the superheroes ended up being won by ... a group of aging action stars.
In a surprising outcome, "The Expendables 2" has outgrossed both "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" in China.
The ensemble action movie starring Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jet Li has grossed $54 million in China as of Sunday, according to research firm Artisan Gateway. "The Expendables 2" opened in the world's most populous nation Sept. 4.
"It's phenomenal what's happening in China with this movie," said Avi Lerner, whose Millennium Films made "The Expendables 2."
Millennium hoped to make the sequel with a Chinese partner, but the co-production deal fell apart at the last minute, Lerner said. The co-production rules treat such films as local productions, not foreign films. Such an arrangement would have given Millennium an even greater share of the film's Chinese revenues.
"The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," which Chinese authorities scheduled to open in a controversial head-to-head matchup one week earlier in China, have grossed $52.5 million and $48.5 million there, respectively.
China Film Group's decision to open the Spider-Man and Batman films on the same date was a move by the state-owned firm to limit the box office receipts of U.S. imports, which have far outpaced local productions in the first half of the year. Those were among the most popular pictures of the year in the U.S. and Canada. Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight Rises" has grossed $445 million domestically, while Sony Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man" has collected $262 million.
"The Expendables 2" has grossed a much more modest $84 million domestically. In China, it's the eighth-highest grossing film of the year, while "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" are No. 9 and No. 10, respectively. "Titanic 3-D" remains No. 1 with $146 million.
Artisan Gateway President Rance Pow said ticket sales for the two superhero films were limited because they opened against each other. Twentieth-Century Fox's science-fiction picture "Prometheus" opened a week later, on Sept. 2.
By contrast, no other big-budget American import opened against "The Expendables 2" on Sept. 4, and none have opened since. No others are scheduled until "The Bourne Legacy" on Oct. 25, as China appears to again be in the midst of an unofficial "blackout period," during which no American films are being imported.
Raymond Zhou, a film critic for China Daily and other publications, attributed the success of "The Expendables 2" to the popularity of ensemble casts, which are common in Chinese productions -- the ensemble includes Hong Kong action star Jet Li and Chinese actress Yu Nan -- and local audiences' enthusiasm for stars who are considered more over the hill in the United States.
“This is a perfect movie for Chinese audiences," he said. "Just like over-the-hill singers can find a market in Vegas, over-the-hill movie stars can find a market in China."
The original "Expendables" was a surprise success in China, grossing $32 million. However, producer Millennium was not able to secure one of the country's coveted quota slots for imported movies, which allow producers to share in box office revenue, but generally no more than 24% of a film's gross ticket sales. Instead, Millennium sold the first "Expendables" film outright to a local distributor for about $600,000.
This time, Lerner said, Millennium should take home about $10 million from China for "The Expendables 2," and he hopes the returns will be even better for a third "Expendables" film, which is now in the works.
"You have to remember," Lerner said, "once China likes something, they keep going."