The Story of “Oscar Films” in Mainland China

“Jojo Rabbit”, “Little Women”, and “Marriage Story”, the three much-anticipated films will all get their crack at the world’s second largest film market, presenting a feast to the eye for Chinese movie fans. With the gradual opening and maturity of the Mainland market in recent years, many Oscar films can also get high oversea box office in China Mainland.

On January 13th, local time in the United States, the 92nd Oscar nominations were officially announced. The overall result was not too much of a surprise, except for the losing of “Frozen 2” and “The Farewell”. Good news came to not only six major Hollywood companies led by Disney, a major Oscar nominee and Sony, but also to “Marriage Story” co-promoted by Road Pictures in the Mainland, as well as to “1917” jointly produced by Alibaba Pictures, and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” co-presented by Tencent Picture. At the same time, “Jojo Rabbit”, “Little Women”, and “Marriage Story”, the three much-anticipated films, will all get their crack at the world’s second largest film market, presenting a feast to the eye for movie fans. The Mainland “battlefield” of Oscar films opened in 2016 may reach its climax this year.

The Introduction of Oscar Films to Mainland China

There are stereotypes that Oscar films are biographical and literary art films which will gain little box office in the Mainland market where only popcorn movies can draw large audiences. However, this is not the case. Different from mainstream Hollywood commercial films, more than 60% or even 70% of the box office of Oscar films is produced in North America. However, with the gradual opening and maturity of the Mainland market in recent years, many Oscar films can also get the highest oversea box office in the Mainland.

Generally speaking, Oscar films are divided into two types in China. One is the film with distinctive commercial characteristics, such as “Gravity”, “Interstellar”, “The Martian” and “Hacksaw Ridge”. The Oscar nomination or award of these films sadly makes sense in terms of their box office in the Mainland. These films, usually released synchronously compared to the North America, will get satisfactory box office. The “Knives Out” introduced at the end of last year fits into this category.

The other is the one with stronger artistic tendencies or film cultures, such as “The Imitation Game”, “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea”. If not blessed by the Academy Awards, they should have rare opportunities to be introduced to the Mainland. Suppose the release date in the Mainland is late, with the best time unluckily missed, (for example, the three films mentioned above got their crack at the Mainland market more than four months after the Oscar ceremony), it is naturally reasonable to see unsatisfactory box office.

The turning point of Oscar films in the Mainland market was the release of “The Revenant” in 2016. Since 2016, February and March have gradually become the much preferred release time for Oscar films. As for the box office, surprising market response tends to occur due to the high attention and topical enthusiasm brought by Oscar nominations and awards. “The Revenant”, for which Leonardo DiCaprio has won the Academy Award for best actor, was released in the Mainland China within three weeks after the award, taking 377 million yuan during its release period. It is not easy for an Oscar film focusing on photography and acting skills to obtain such market performances.

Similarly, the 2017 romantic musical “La La Land” was also released in Mainland China during the Academy Award ceremony. Its convenient opening on Valentine’s Day also became a hot spot for a love film. It scooped up a box office of 248 million yuan, which not only surpassed expectations, but also expanded the popularity of Joy Pictures, its introducer, in the film industry. In 2018, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water”, the two Academy Award slots, were also scheduled to be released to the general public in the Mainland in March. Stealing the glory of the Award, both of them also achieved surprisingly unexpected box-office results.

“Green Book”, the film winning the Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2019, became the earliest Best Picture Oscar winner to be introduced to Mainland China, achieving a box office score of 478 million yuan. Undoubtedly, this is the most likely cause for the further expansion of the introduction of Oscar films to Mainland China this year.

A Long-waited Good Harvest of Oscar 2020 

Results of several essential film events and awards will be subsequently published, with the Sundance Film Festival held in January, the Berlin International Film Festival in February, the Cannes Film Festival in May, the Venice International Film Festival in August, the Toronto Film Festival and New York International Film Festival in September, various Industry Awards and Film Critics Awards in November. The Golden Globe Nominations will be announced in December and the awards will be presented in the following January, as the Oscar nominations will be declared one week later, with the awarding ceremony to be held at the end of February. So many activities shall be arranged during each year’s awards season.

A consensus has been reached by both overseas media and Mainland film fans about the high quality of Oscar-nominated films this year. Indeed, eight of the Oscar-nominated films have registered a score of 8.5 or more in Douban, showing their fitness to the tastes of Mainland audiences.

Major companies in the Mainland still fan out to stake claims in Oscar films each year. Indeed, although their box office is not comparable to that of the billion-dollar popcorn commercial films, most of these films were imported to China in a buyout mode. Their often-too-low cost can guarantee them a certain degree of profits even if the final box office sales totaling 50 to 60 million yuan. If luckily winning some major awards, such as the Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the visibility and recognition of small and medium companies will be greatly improved. The investment and outright purchase of Oscar-awarded films is a matter of “fame and wealth”, which is quite different from investing in Hollywood income-sharing blockbuster films.

Prospect for the 2020 Oscar Films in Mainland Market

Five days after the release, the box office revenues of “The Farewell” and “Richard Jewell” respectively reached 2.7 million yuan and 2.2 million yuan. The two much-anticipated Oscar films during the awards season this year received a dismal box office after the one-week release in the Mainland film market, adding uncertainties to the introduction of 2020 Oscar films. The over-300-million box office winners, including the high-quality Oscar films led by “The Revenant”, “Green Book”, and “Capharnaüm” make full use of the advantages of ultimate harmony.

The film “Jojo Rabbit” was directed by Taika Cohen, also the director of “Thor: Ragnarök”, and starred by Scarlett Johansson, following the income-sharing mode to be introduced to the Mainland. This is also the first live-action movie released in the Mainland after the acquisition of Flowserve by Disney. However, the release is not nationwide, but is specifically distributed by the Arts Alliance Media.

Since its establishment three years ago, the Arts Alliance Media, though having successfully released high-quality films such as “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”, is also soured by the situation that the screening schedule of many films it has released is significantly lower than market standards. This is attributed to the joined cinemas’ failure to follow the set rules for film schedules in terms of some films with less commercial characteristics. One remarkable problem needing the attention of the Arts Alliance Media is to ensure the standardized schedule of films in joined cinemas.

“Little Women”, a Sony income-sharing film, has been scheduled to release in China. An all-star cast led by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Meryl Streep, and Timothée Chalamet also appealed to many audiences in Mainland China. According to the foreign media, it registers an audience approval score of 95 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 92 percent of Popcorn Glycemic Index. It is believed that it will be an excellent film with good comments in Douban and Maoyan, hopefully to achieve good box office results.

The Netflix-produced drama “Marriage Story”, focusing on a divorce to discuss marriage and love, was directed by Noah Baumbach. Since its appearance at the Venice International Film Festival, the film has won unanimous praise from overseas film critics. The film was officially launched on Netflix early last month, receiving a high score of IMDb 8.2. As for the Mainland China, the film, publicized and released by Road Pictures.

In addition, “1917”, which has won the Best Picture at the Golden Globe awards, has the strength to win the box office among the Oscar films this year. First of all, the film, just like “Green Book” last year, is created by the same company. With the specific distribution of Universal Picture, it is also co-produced by DreamWorks, Amblin Entertainment and Alibaba Pictures, with shares in Amblin Entertainment. In terms of the public praise, it is hard for the film to recreate the miracle produced by the 2019 film “Green Book”, but may hopefully achieve good record in ticket sales.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, a film co-produced by Tencent Pictures that is much likely to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, also possesses a box office strength that cannot be underestimated.

Another interesting point to note is the schedule of BAFTA, Oscar and Berlin International Film Festival has been adjusted for the first time since this year. Previously, BAFTA would be held during the Berlin International Film Festival, which shall be followed by Oscar. However, this situation will soften the popularity of Oscar films in the late two years. In August last year, the schedule of Oscar ceremony was set in early February, while that of the Berlin International Film Festival was changed to the end of February and early March.

As the Oscar awards season is brought forward, there are greater possibilities of “collision” between Oscar films and domestic films scheduled to be screened during Spring Festival. One note of caution is that Chinese filmmakers should balance the relationship between these two slots when introducing films in the future. A relatively good choice may be to arrange some popular Oscar films to be released during the cold season in January following the Golden Globes Award ceremony.


Editor GUAN Yu

Originally Presented by Yiqipaidianying Editorial Office