Warcraft: Bomb in the U.S. Box-Office, Smash Hit in China–Why and How

The video game adaptation Warcraft debuted with a strong opening weekend of $156 million in China, but failed miserably in the U.S.

According to Variety, the mega-wide release last Wednesday–on 67% of China’s 39,000 screens–was the result of effective marketing and corporate investment.

In its opening five-day frame in China, the picture earned some six times more than the $24.5 million it grossed in North America, where the film received very bad reviews.

The weekend score makes Warcraft the sixth biggest film of the year, bigger than the complete run of Kung Fu Panda 3 ($154 million) or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which earned $124 million in January.

Warcraft was a reminder that the movie industry is now a global business and that international theatrical is the big variable.  Moreover, foreign markets performances are less shaped by U.S. scores, reviews and world views.

The stellar justifies Legendary founder Thomas Tull’s ten-year fixation on China. And the company’s $3.5 billion acquisition by China’s Dalian Wanda.

In China, Blizzard Entertainment’s underlying “World of Warcraft” video game had been especially popular.  The massive opening proved that the film connected with audiences beyond the core gamers, about one million players and fanboys.

Long term planning by Legendary and its wholly-owned China subsidiary Legendary East proved helpful.

Legendary opened up the equity of the $160 million budget film to four Chinese firms.

The production assembled an unprecedented roster of 26 brands as sponsors, including computer maker Lenovo, chip maker Intel, car maker Jeep, insurer Ping An, and brewer Tsingtao. The sponsor team is estimated to have contributed $30 million (RMB200 million) of support.

Warcraft got a release date in the same week as its North American and international rollouts.

Legendary’s in-house marketing teams in London and Beijing went to town on localization of promotional material for the Chinese market.

They were supported by the company’s data analysis division.  In China, producers and distributors are obsessed with ‘big data’ and Internet giants are the power houses of the film industry.

Merchandizing was contracted out to Mtime, a popular film information portal whose marketing division can be hired for bespoke promotional services.

Wanda committed its market-leading Wanda Cinema Line exhibition circuit to supporting the title.

Marketing strategy meetings have involved up to 40 people at a time, mostly third parties, and including distributors, brands, data analysts, social media partners, and corporate backers.

The track record of most Hollywood films in China this year has been strong. But it remains to be seen whether Warcraft is a movie with strong legs and potential for multi-title franchise.