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The 'Warcraft' Movie, Panned in the US, Is Huge in China

China's love affair with the film may spring from its long, complicated history with World of Warcraft.

by Leif Johnson
Jun 11 2016, 7:28pm

The Warcraft movie is shit, many of my critical peers are saying, and they've been doing their best for weeks now to keep you from stepping in it.

But I stepped through the theater doors to see it myself, and just a few days later I find it yields fertile ground for discussion. I—admittedly a longtime Warcraft fan—actually kind of like it. Virtually all my friends from World of Warcraft enjoy it, but no one likes it, apparently, so much as the Chinese. They like it so much, in fact, that Duncan Jones' film had already earned $124.2 million there just three days after release, with $46 million of that coming in on the first day alone. If it's not clear how big those numbers are, consider this: Last December's Star Wars: The Force Awakens only pulled in $125 million in China during its entire theatrical run.

Meanwhile, back in the US analysts have almost gleefully been predicting a flop of the highest order, pegging the weekend haul at somewhere around $25 million for a film with a $160 million budget.

China's numbers thus surprise some people, especially when paired with those for the ostensibly superior Star Wars. But just as many critics don't appreciate the ways in which Jones' film honors the spirit of the games, they don't appreciate the huge presence World of Warcraft has attained in China over the years. Even with constant battles over censorship with the government, even with long-running server issues that make those in the United States look minor, World of Warcraft endures.

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Image: Legendary Pictures

By 2011 with 3.2 million subscribers, Chinese WoW players were already exceeding those in the states. Earlier this week, the International Business Times claimed that almost half of World of Warcraft's players now reside in China. (It's worth noting some people argue a significant number of those players were the "gold farmers" who farm in-game currency in exchange for cash. Notoriously, many are from China.) World of Warcraft came of age in China just as the country was beginning its sudden rush to modernity, which grants it a cultural relevance Star Wars never had. Indeed, when Luke first met Obi-Wan Kenobi on the big screen in 1977, Star Wars and most other western movies were banned in China. But Warcraft? World of Warcraft's been there almost the whole time, even after government shutdowns and attempts at shutdowns.

It's been around in the US, too, of course, with almost as many millions playing as China has. But the peak time for a movie release here may have passed, even with renewed interest in the game following the controversy that emerged when WoW developer Blizzard Entertainment shut down the private server Nostalrius. World of Warcraft proper is a ghost of itself, partly as a result of a content drought in which almost an entire year has gone by without a proper patch, and subscriptions have dipped so low that Blizzard doesn't even report them anymore.

As for Warcraft's success in China, the IBT also points out that it also doesn't hurt that Warcraft studio Legendary Pictures is now owned by the world's largest cinema chain operator, China's Dalian Wanda, having been bought for $3.5 billion earlier this year.

But is China's affection for Warcraft even simpler than that? Are Chinese audiences just able to enjoy big, dumb summer movies in a way we no longer can? There were hints of this even three years ago, when Guillermo del Toro's robots-versus-monsters flick Pacific Rim earned a $45.2 million debut compared to the $38 million it saw in the states. Eventually, it would go on to earn $114 million in China alone. In April of last year Furious 7 brought in a stunning $63.1 million on its first day, which remains the highest opening for China ever. At this rate, according to the Hollywood Reporter, China is on course to overtake North America as the world's largest film market as soon as next year.

I'll be doing my part to fight that trend in my own little way—I still have several friends from World of Warcraft who want to see it with me. And the strangest thing? I find myself wanting to see it again. Maybe China is on to something, after all.