China’s national box office saw a nearly 70-percent drop in sales this weekend – the country’s holiest holiday, honoring the fall of Beijing to communism – compared to last year, a catastrophic result triggered by both waves of Chinese coronavirus lockdowns and the shelving of what was expected to be the nation’s most popular movie.
Born to Fly, a low-budget communist version of the global blockbuster Top Gun, was expected to debut on September 30 and had already raked in 33.6 million yuan (about $4.7 million) in ticket presales when the film’s producers abruptly announced last week that they would postpone the release indefinitely, vaguely attributing the decision to the poor quality of the movie’s special effects.
With Born to Fly grounded, the top film in Chinese theaters this weekend was Home Coming, a tedious “patriotic” tome about the greatness of Chinese communist diplomats.
China regularly coerces citizens to partake in “patriotic” movie viewings, particularly increasing the pressure during the nation’s “Golden Week.” As October 1 is the anniversary of the founding of the communist People’s Republic of China, citizens have the week off and are expected to attend communist events, visit sites of historical significance to the Party, and enjoy group viewings of propaganda films.
According to Variety, the Chinese box office made $88 million this weekend, a nearly 70-percent drop in revenue from the same weekend last year, which made $271 million.
In 2020 – the first year of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, prior to the release of coronavirus vaccine products and a time during which many still expressed apprehension about attending crowded indoor events – the box office made about 65 percent more money than this year, the Hollywood Reporter observed.
Homecoming was responsible for about 67 percent of ticket sales despite even Chinese propaganda outlets admitting the over two-hour-long film is a bore.
The movie is not perfect in terms of some parts of the storytelling and acting, but it struck a chord among viewers at the timing of National Day holidays,” the Global Times, a Chinese government newspaper, lamented on Tuesday, citing a moviegoer’s best attempt to praise the film.
“There are not many cool action scenes, but thrilling in a sense that the story is in a fictional setting but not really fictional,” the state propaganda outlet quoted another viewer as saying.
The Global Times praised the film as a thrilling view into “the most difficult part of diplomatic and consulate work” and promoting “deep love for their country and their people, strong sense of responsibilities and the greater group of Chinese diplomats in the new era they represent.”
The state newspaper nonetheless admitted, while attempting to celebrate Homecoming, that the Chinese movie industry was in a “cold winter,” citing an anonymous “Beijing-based movie critic” who suggested that communist propaganda films are the solution to bringing out viewers.
The absence of Born to Fly left Chinese theaters without a major action blockbuster to sell. As Hollywood Reporter noted, the other movies competing with Homecoming were largely also propaganda films, but did not offer any particularly exciting action sequences:
Bona Film Group’s medical rescue movie Ordinary Hero also opened Friday and came in second for the frame with $8.6 million, while Wanda’s holdover comedy Give Me Five added $4.9 million for a $34.7 million total. Local animated feature New Happy Dad and Son 5: My Alien Friend premiered Saturday and scored fourth for the weekend with $3.5 million, while yet another propaganda project, Steel Will, debuted with just $2.6 million.
The box office’s failure to offer a patriotic action movie stands in stark contrast to last year when The Battle at Lake Changjin, a three-hour film depicting Chinese soldiers defeating villainous American soldiers in the Korean War, netted $779.13 million in the first week of its release. Lake Changjin was last year’s top National Day weekend film, fueled by the Chinese government aggressively pressuring Chinese citizens to watch the movie as a patriotic “duty.” Chinese citizens were encouraged at the time to go to the film and eat frozen potatoes while watching it to experience the hardships of being a Chinese soldier fighting the Americans.
Lake Changjin remains the top-grossing Chinese film of all time.
Prior to the cancelation of its release, Chinese propagandists had expressed hope that Born to Fly, a communist reinterpretation – or “plagiarism,” as some viewers have complained – would carry the Chinese box office to comparable levels to 2021 and Lake Changjin‘s success, presumably based on the tremendous global success of Top Gun: Maverick, the film that Born to Fly is clearly inspired by. In its early iteration, the Top Gun sequel was funded by Chinese regime-friendly corporation Tencent, but Tencent stopped funding the film shortly after production, reportedly on the grounds that it was concerned the film depicted America too favorably.
Tencent exiting the project resolved a controversy early in the film’s life in which star Tom Cruise was seen wearing a jacket with the flags of Taiwan and Japan on it, which was initially censored to placate China but later restored.
Chinese propaganda outlets like the Global Times, which are usually eager to comment on Hollywood, mostly ignored Top Gun: Maverick and its global success in June. The Chinese government has not allowed Top Gun into the nation’s theaters and has not indicated it ever will, instead investing in promoting Born to Fly. The Global Times praised the Chinese film as a look at “young, excellent Chinese pilots put[ting] China’s self-produced stealth fighter through its paces and protect the motherland’s territorial air space without fear of difficulties or danger.”
Producers for Born to Fly announced on September 27 that the film’s release would be canceled, without offering any indication as to when, or if, the movie would be released at all.
“It is unclear why exactly Born to Fly has been withdrawn from the National Day premiere schedule. However, the cancelation announcement vaguely attributes the film’s scrapped theatrical release to the need to ‘improve special effects,’” the outlet Radii reported. Radii noted that, on the Chinese government-controlled social media Weibo, many users appeared unimpressed by the movie’s trailer, calling the effects “lame” and unfavorably comparing it to Top Gun.