Does ‘Warcraft’s Chinese Success Change The Blockbuster Game?

Warcraft is doing okay at the overseas box office and struggling in the U.S. But it’s absolutely enormous in China. So far it’s grossed $156 million in theaters, and it just broke another record, selling for a withheld sum to PPTV for exclusive streaming rights to China. If Warcraft breaks even, it’ll be thanks to Chinese audiences. So does this change how blockbusters work, or is it an anomaly?

China is an enormous, growing market for Hollywood and increasingly important to blockbusters. The most recent Transformers movie grossed just a quarter of its billion-dollar gross in America, and more than a third of it in China. Still, that was, to some degree, predictable: Even as series wane in the U.S., their sequels tend to do well, sometimes remarkably well, overseas.

Warcraft is a bit of a switch, though, in that it’s the would-be beginning of a franchise and China has emerged as by far its most meaningful market. To be fair, Warcraft is, fundamentally, a Chinese movie. Legendary, the studio that developed it for a decade, was recently bought out by Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese real estate and entertainment conglomerate; Tencent, a Chinese internet company, helped fund it; and Atlas Entertainment, another company involved in the production, has strong ties to the Chinese film industry.

None of this is a coincidence. The Chinese film industry is, ultimately, operating at the whims of the Chinese government. And the politicians of Beijing would prefer to flip the equation so more Chinese movies are exported and fewer American movies imported. Only 34 foreign movies, carefully hand-picked by Chinese censors, are allowed into the country a year. This may not have been a central motive for Warcraft, but it’s telling that a movie largely funded with Chinese money is tearing up the box office in a way movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Batman V. Superman couldn’t.

That said, it’s not clear that China will carry Warcraft to box office dominance. The movie’s break-even point at the global box office is $450 million, and it’s still, as of this writing, about $150 million shy. That’s certainly within reach, but it’s in sharp contrast to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which racked up nearly a billion dollars just in the U.S., and Deadpool, which got banned in China and saw that ban ultimately have zero effect on its surprise $760 million worldwide gross. Even if Warcraft does break even, it’s still unlikely to make much of a dent in Hollywood’s box office strategy, being seen more as an odd, modest success instead of a trendsetter.

That said, there is a rather curious comparison you can make between this and another movie based on a video game, Angry Birds. Just who pays what for a movie is painfully opaque, but it’s widely believed that Rovio, the developer, largely funded the movie, and it will almost certainly turn a profit. A tale of orcs and mages might not be the ticket to global cultural dominance, but as it now stands the entire world matters more to Hollywood than any one nation.