Time was, Hollywood filmmakers would regularly travel to China in support of their movies, attending premieres and holding Q&As to drum up buzz in the massive box office market. The pandemic halted that ritual — until this week when Christopher Nolan became the first major Hollywood filmmaker since Covid to stroll a red carpet in China as his Oppenheimer was premiered at Universal Studios’ CityWalk IMAX theater in Beijing, followed by a stop in Shanghai for more screenings and fan interaction.
Such was the event that the day after the Beijing premiere, the state-backed Global Times gushed that Nolan “set hearts racing … as he became the first prominent figure from the Hollywood film industry to visit Hollywood’s largest overseas market, the Chinese mainland, after the pandemic.” (It’s worth noting that Ben Wheatley was also recently in China for the unveiling of Warner Bros’ Meg 2: The Trench, which is a Chinese coproduction.)
From the Oppenheimer Beijing show, video on Weibo saw fans “clutching posters” featuring Nolan’s previous works like Inception, Interstellar and Tenet, the Global Times reported. The premiere also ignited discussions on social media, with Weibo trending topics including #Oppenheimer, #OppenheimerChinaPremiere, #NolanSigningPostersForFans. According to sources, the film has generated over 50 million views on the Weibo platform alone. The Maoyan want-to-see number also sharply increased. The film currently leads presales through next Sunday.
Oppenheimer is set for release on August 30 in China where Nolan’s films have a strong track record. It was the No. 1 offshore market on 2010’s Inception, No. 2 on 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, and tops for 2014’s Interstellar and 2020’s Tenet.
Special screenings of Oppenheimer for students from Peking University and the China Film Academy were also held this week with Nolan in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. The filmmaker then traveled to Shanghai for additional screenings as Nolan conducted Q&As with students from FuDan University and the Shanghai Theater Academy.
While China’s borders have been open for about six months, we’ve not seen a pre-pandemic level influx of talent. At the same time, although authorities have been freer in general with release dates for Hollywood movies, audiences have also been very high on local titles and tepid on U.S. films.
So, is Nolan’s trip a sign of things to come?
USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen muses that “Hollywood studios see the Chinese market as a nice bonus, but no longer essential for success.” This has been true for some time given the unreliability of the market and its gatekeepers. Still, there is wistfulness over those sky-high 2012-2019 grosses. Could traveling talent help claw back some ground?
Rosen thinks geopolitics is playing a part, suggesting that recently there has been a combination of factors keeping folks from traveling to China, “starting with the state of U.S.-China relations and the widespread criticism of Hollywood in and out of Congress that Hollywood is pandering to China and helping it launder its image around the world.”
Hollywood, Rosen says, “is always concerned about PR, and promoting itself in China may seem like bad PR in the current environment.” However, he believes that issue could be overcome if Hollywood films were still doing well in China.” But with the shift in the market during and after the pandemic, “no recent blockbuster, assuming it even got into China, has matched its predecessor… Getting to China and navigating around China is much more complicated than it used to be.”
Check back this week for updates on Oppenheimer‘s performance in the market.