According to the Hollywood Reporter, the most popular film in the world last weekend, taking in $46 million, was The Monkey King, a 3-D epic based on a Chinese legend about a “monkey born from a heavenly stone who acquires supernatural powers.” The story is a prequel to the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, about the introduction of Buddhism to China, which was itself adapted into a highly successful action comedy last year.
The Monkey King’s big weekend comes almost entirely from Chinese audiences. The beginning of the Lunar New Year is generally one of the biggest box office weekends of the year for the Chinese film market, which became the second-largest in the world over the least decade. Where Are We Going, Dad?,a Chinese documentary based on a reality show about celebrity fathers, was the world’s second-most-successful film over the weekend. The U.S. animated feature Frozen was No. 3.
The Chinese film market is increasingly dominated by local productions. In 2012 only three local films cracked the top 10 in China. In 2013 only three Hollywood films were on the list, and domestic pictures accounted for 71 percent of box office revenue. The Chinese government has exercised some cultural protectionism over its film industry, allowing only a certain number of foreign films into the country per year. But interestingly, the increasing share of Chinese movies in the country’s box office comes after a landmark trade deal in 2012 that lifted the number of Hollywood films released in the country from 20 per year to 34. (The extra 14 have to be IMAX or 3-D.)
A number of high-profile Hollywood movies, including Gravity and Pacific Rim, have added China-friendly elements with an eye on pleasing Chinese audiences (and censors). The 3-D requirement leads to some odd choices for the American films China gets to see. 2014’s selections include the flop The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and the straight-to-video animated movie Saving Santa. Maybe it’s not so surprising that Chinese audiences are sticking with homegrown hits.
As for the Monkey King, U.S. audiences will have to wait until September to see what they’ve been missing.