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Why International Markets Are Driving Global Box Office Recovery in 2023

Box office headlines have lately been dominated by Hollywood movies like Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which has become the first movie of the year to hit $1 billion, and Disney’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3.” But a closer look at the global box office recovery indicates that Tinseltown does not have the field to itself.

In fact, international films and markets — not the United States — are driving the current global box office recovery. In some territories, local-language titles are even dominant over Hollywood releases. And the overall scale of overseas ticket sales now dwarfs that of North America by more than two to one.

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In the first weekend in May, the global box office charts were led by “Super Mario.” But the top 10 ranking also contained five non-English-language titles, according to data service Comscore. Three were Chinese (“Born to Fly,” “Godspeed” and “All These Years”), one was Japanese “(The First Slam Dunk”) and one was Indian (“Ponniyin Selvan Part 2”). Over the most recent weekend, in which “Guardians” clocked $168 million in international markets and another $114 million in North America, the worldwide top 10 charts contained two Chinese and two Japanese titles.

The revised outlook may reflect the arrival of the long-awaited post-COVID new normal. All theatrical territories are now open, including the crucial China market where political and disease-control considerations ruined 2022, and films of all origins are once again able to release on a more level playing field. There are laggards and leaders, of course.

China’s five-day May Day holiday season (May 1-5) was worth over $190 million (RMB1.3 billion), according to mainland Chinese sources. Typically, it saw more than a dozen Chinese-produced new release titles, but the lively festival period also kept Japanese animation film “The First Slam Dunk” in play.

The latest adaptation of a 1980s manga, “Slam Dunk” has appealed to nostalgic middle-aged males (a difficult target audience to hit), and has played strongly in six territories across Asia. It has made some $92.6 million to date in China and $36.5 million in Korea, where it is the second-highest grossing film of 2023 so far. No release date has yet been set in the U.S.

Another Japanese film that has made a mark globally, and was a top 10 feature through April, is Shinkai Makoto’s “Suzume.” It released in Japan in late 2022 and kicked off its international campaign with a Berlin festival appearance in February. Comscore calculates that it has amassed $8.5 million in North America and $285 million in six international territories. Its $119 million in China now exceeds what it has earned in Japan. And “Suzume” is currently the biggest film released in 2023 in Korea, where it has grossed $41.3 million.

It may or may not be coincidence that the two territories where “Super Mario” has under-performed expectations are China ($24 million) and Korea ($13.7 million), where the two Japanese anime blockbusters scored most strongly.

“There has been a marked increase in the number of titles from China and Japan that are making their mark in the top 10 global chart, particularly over the past few months,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior market analyst at Comscore. But, he adds, “Hollywood films, which had been largely absent from screens in China in 2022, have made a comeback with the acceptance of ‘Avatar: The Way of Water.'”

THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE, from left: Princess Peach (voice: Anya Taylor-Joy), Mario (voice: Chris Pratt), 2023. © Universal Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
It may or may not be coincidence that the two territories where “Super Mario” has under-performed expectations are China ($24 million) and Korea ($13.7 million), where the two Japanese anime blockbusters scored most strongly.

For most of the last decade, China has been the world’s second largest box office market (and actually the largest in COVID-depressed 2020 and 2021). Historically, what happened in the Middle Kingdom has had a major impact on Hollywood — and any other titles fortunate enough to get an import permit. Aamir Khan’s “Dangal” with $193 million and “Secret Superstar” ($117 million) and Thailand’s “Bad Genius” ($41 million) all scored higher in China than their home markets.

But reading the current state of the China market is tricky. Attendance surged in a burst of revenge spending over the Chinese New Year period in late January, delivering grosses of $1 billion in 10 days. May Day provided another boost, but non-holiday sessions have been less robust. And the softness comes despite the return of Hollywood imports, which were re-introduced at the behest of Chinese exhibitors that were on their knees after a torrid COVOD-infected 2022.

“The slate of Chinese-language and import films on the radar through the rest of 2023 has the potential to lift China’s theatrical industry back to vitality. Chinese moviegoers are demonstrating interest in a wide range of stories and genres, both home-grown and foreign, and every successful film will make an important contribution,” says Rance Pow, principal at consultancy and research firm Artisan Gateway.

Researchers at another consultancy Gower Street Analytics recently revised upwards their forecasts for the global box office this year, following a strong first quarter driven by Chinese blockbusters “Full River Red” and “The Wandering Earth II,” the long legs of “Avatar: The Way of Water” and a triumphant debut for “Super Mario.”

The firm also increased its full year forecast for China to $6.8 billion, but its commentary on the country was otherwise much cooler. “Until the market shows more consistent recovery especially on import titles, we are holding our Q2-4 estimates relatively steady,” it said in a late April research note.

May is on course to be a more serious examination of Hollywood’s audience pulling power in China. “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3” pushed into the immediate post-holiday period with a solid $28 million opening weekend. “Fast & Furious 10,” will throttle up on May 17.

The high-octane series has been hugely popular in China. In 2015, “Fast & Furious 7” grossed RMB2.42 billion ($351 million at today’s exchange rates). In 2017, “Fast & Furious 8” grossed RMB2.67 billion ($387 million), while the 2021 release of “F9: The Fast Saga” took $217 million. But analysts will be closely watching the performance of the newest chapter in the franchise in the current landscape.

“Hollywood films are now returning in meaningful supply to many international markets, including China. The recent successes of selected local, regional, and international films demonstrate a discerning mainland audience’s continuing interest in compelling films,” says Pow.

Another recent statistical publication, the 2023 India Media & Entertainment report published by EY in association with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, shows theatrical cinema in the sub-continent making an even more robust comeback.

Its data shows overall filmed entertainment in 2022 rebounded back to 90% of 2019 levels. Theatrical leaped from $475 million in 2021 to $1.2 billion in 2022, powered by significantly more titles releasing in cinemas and by the increasingly pan-Indian (and international) success of south Indian films “RRR,” “K.G.F: Chapter 2,” “Kantara,” “Ponniyin Selvan: 1” and “Vikram.” Hindi-language Bollywood enjoyed success with “Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva,” “The Kashmir Files,” “Drishyam 2” and “Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2.” The rebound of Indian titles crimped the market share of Hollywood in India, which had reached a high of 15% in pre-pandemic 2019, to 13% in 2022.

The EY-FICCI report projects the filmed entertainment segment (including rights sales and overseas revenues) to grow to $2.7 billion by 2025. But interestingly, it makes the comment that “the multiplex audience largely overlaps with the SVOD audience.” That is both a long-term threat to cinemas and explains why Indian exhibition chains are increasingly focused on building premium facilities and experiences at the expense of low-margin single screen venues.

The northern hemisphere summer season is time for Hollywood’s tentpoles. But it will be the international markets that decide their status as hits or flops. Gower Street’s current forecast for the year in progress suggests that 2023 will be a $32 billion theatrical market — of the global total, the international theatrical segment will account for 72% while North America will contribute around 28%.

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