LOS ANGELES — The box office action over the weekend took place in China, where “Aquaman” collected a $94 million in tickets, validating a risky plan by Warner Bros. to release the movie in the Middle Kingdom before anywhere else.
Hollywood has learned a lot about Chinese moviegoers in recent years, but releasing films in the country — the world’s No. 2 market behind the United States — remains a crapshoot for American studios. Warner and other Hollywood companies cannot distribute their own movies in China; they must rely on the state-owned China Film Group. Chinese censors often do not clear American films for distribution until the relative last minute, hindering marketing efforts.
And Chinese audiences have grown more selective about Hollywood movies, at times displaying a new preference for locally made movies like the extravagant “Operation Red Sea,” directed by Dante Lam, known as the Michael Bay of Asia.
The upshot: “Aquaman,” starring Jason Momoa as the DC Comics superhero and directed by James Wan, could have easily flopped in China, which would have left a stink on the movie ahead of its global rollout. “Aquaman,” which cost an estimated $350 million to make and market worldwide, will arrive in 40 more countries on Friday. Audiences in North America will have the chance to see it starting on Dec. 21.
Warner decided to pursue an early release date for “Aquaman” in China to avoid the country’s traditional end-of-year blackout period for American movies. Opening first in China — where Wan has a following, having directed the smash hit “Furious 7” — would also allow Warner to limit the impact of piracy, which is rampant in the country. Piracy was a major factor in the recent failure of Warner’s “Crazy Rich Asians” at the Chinese box office; the romantic comedy’s release in China came three months after its rollout elsewhere in the world.
Why didn’t Warner just release “Aquaman” this weekend in North America as well?
The two weekends after Thanksgiving in the United States are typically among the slowest moviegoing periods of the year, as holiday shopping and related festivities (school pageants) take priority. There were no new wide-release films over the weekend in North America, where the No. 1 movie was once again “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (Disney), which collected about $16.1 million, for a three week domestic total of $140.9 million, according to Comscore.
Three high-profile prestige films arrived in limited release. “Mary Queen of Scots” (Focus Features), starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role, took in $200,000 at four theaters, for a solid per-theater average of $50,045. The slick “Vox Lux” (Neon), starring Natalie Portman as a pop singer, took in about $162,000 in six theaters, for a per-screen average of $27,000 that was boosted by in-person appearances by Portman.
“Ben Is Back” (Roadside Attractions) received the best reviews of the trio but stumbled out of the gate, collecting about $81,000 at four theaters ($20,200 per screen) — one of the worst debuts ever for Julia Roberts, who stars in the film as a mother of a drug-addicted son, played by Lucas Hedges.