Probably my first China story. This was a lead suggested by my senior writer that I followed up on. (See published version here).
Pixar’s Toy Story, Wall-E, and Finding Nemo are beloved in the US, but the iconic film studio has long struggled to replicate its stateside success in China. Its latest title, surprisingly, is changing that.
Coco, the story of an aspiring Mexican musician who meets the ghosts of his ancestors, has struck a chord with Chinese audiences. According to EntGroup, a company that tracks China’s box office, the film has raked in $157.3 million in ticket sales in China since it opened on Nov. 24. That’s a hair above the $151.9 million it has generated to date in North American box office sales, which in the film industry refers to the US and Canada markets.
That makes Coco the first Pixar film to perform better in China than at home. In contrast, Finding Dory, Pixar’s second-highest grossing film in China, raked in a fraction there of what it generated in the US.
Coco no longer occupies top spot in China’s box office rankings, displaced there instead by a local film about a female dance troupe in the army at the end of the Cultural Revolution. But its strong showing in its fourth weekend in theaters mimics the Chinese success of another foreign film drawing on cultural themes beyond the US.
Dangal, an Indian film about a father who trains his daughters for competitive wrestling, generated $193 million at China’s box office this year. The movie’s focus on female empowerment in a predominantly patriarchal culture resonated in China, where a gender imbalance from the one-child policy is only now being corrected. The story in Coco, meanwhile, takes place in Mexico, but its theme of honoring one’s ancestors parallels Chinese culture’s tradition of filial piety.
Hollywood is relying on China for a growing portion of its overall revenue. Many of the top-grossing films of this year have earned a significant percentage of their revenues from China. The most recent film in the Fast and the Furious franchise, for example, grossed $1.2 billion worldwide, making it the second-highest grossing film of the year. And 32% of its global ticket sales came from China alone, according to Box Office Mojo. Despicable Me 3, meanwhile, generated just over $1 billion worldwide, of which 15% came from China. (Not every hit crosses over—Beauty and the Beast, which beat Fast in worldwide sales, had a middling showing in China).
Even at $157.3 million right now, Coco could still have legs in China. The next benchmark to watch out for is if it passes Disney’s Zootopia, which grossed $235.6 million in China over seven weeks in theaters in 2016, making it the country’s highest-grossing animated film ever.