LOS ANGELES — The Walt Disney Co. has to figure out how to stop a subscriber decline at ESPN and find a new CEO, but at least it looks like 2016 is shaping up to be the Year of the Mouse in China.
Early rave reviews for Disney-owned Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which comes out May 6 around the world, should help propel the film to one of the biggest box-office successes of the year, both foreign and domestic. And other than the United States, nowhere are expectations bigger than in China, where the last two films in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man,” earned a combined $345 million.
Not only did the movie pick up a coveted same-day release in China, but “Captain America” also will be one of the last big Hollywood movies to hit the country’s silver screens before the unofficial summer blackout, when China’s film censors clear a path for homegrown fare during a prime moviegoing season. That should help “Captain America” clean up with an audience that has a track record of coming out for Marvel movies in droves.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” reeled in $245 million in China last year, and even 2013’s “Iron Man 3” made $121 million, when the country’s box office was about half the size it was in 2015. But “Captain America” is an even more important movie for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, coming one month after Warner Bros.’ rival DC Cinematic Universe flopped in China with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” That film was skewered by critics worldwide and wasn’t interesting enough to pull the attention of Chinese moviegoers away from their phones.
The release of “Captain America” comes on the heels of Disney’s “Zootopia,” another big hit in China despite its social-justice message. (One military-backed paper called it a U.S. propaganda tool.) Perhaps ironically, the movie seemed to have had little trouble getting past the country’s film censors despite its decidedly pro-American hero.
And with “Zootopia” captivating Chinese audiences and Shanghai Disneyland Park opening in two months, “Captain America” rolling to a big box-office number would just add to Disney’s run of good fortune, which would be a reversal of sorts for rival studio Universal. Behind “Jurassic World,” which made $229 million in China, and “Furious 7,” which hauled in $391 million there, Universal was the Hollywood studio of note in China last year.
But in 2016, the Middle Kingdom looks like Disney’s world.
The year began inauspiciously enough — “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which came out in China Jan. 9, a full three weeks after it opened in the U.S. and most other markets, literally put Chinese audiences to sleep and ended up making only $125 million there. That fell well short of the initial estimates of $150 million, although the movie’s multiple record-breaking global haul more than made up for it.
But since then, the Mouse House has been on a serious roll in China — one that appears likely to continue until the summer. “Zootopia” has been setting records from its March 4 opening, becoming the biggest-ever animated movie in China and third-biggest import ever, behind only “Furious 7” and “Transformers 4” — and had its theatrical run extended by two weeks, to April 17.
That would overlap with Disney’s well-reviewed live-action “The Jungle Book,” which opens in China — and the U.S. — on April 15 and performed well in other international markets it opened in last weekend. Assuming “Jungle Book” can stick around a few weeks, it would feed right into “Captain America,” giving Disney quite a streak. And with China restricting its cinemas to 34 foreign films a year — and its censors doing what they can to ensure homegrown films get about 55 percent market share — every movie Disney successfully places and scores with in China is a direct hit to its competitors.
All this is happening while Disney’s Burbank headquarters is engulfed in succession drama, after the company’s board abruptly axed Thomas Staggs, its chief operating officer and heir apparent to CEO Bob Iger. Disney’s stock price has tripled under Iger, who was the mastermind of Disney’s acquisitions of Marvel, “Star Wars” production company Lucasfilm and animation house Pixar, which have been a big part of its movie studio’s recent string of successes. Iger has also focused on growing Disney’s brand in China for years.
But Iger, who is still set to depart in 2018, is seeing his big China bet pay more dividends every day. He has been traveling to China multiple times a year for 15 years, working with an ever-changing cast of Chinese leaders, shepherding the nearly 1,000-acre Shanghai Disney Resort through to completion. Shanghai Disneyland Park, the first phase, is set to open June 16 — right in the middle of the Shanghai International Film Festival — and Disney expects it to be a contender for biggest theme park in Asia.
Iger may not leave Disney with the cleanest succession plan — although there’s still time — but if this year’s any indication, the company will be more relevant than ever in what could be the world’s biggest movie market as soon as next year. The sun never really sets on the happiest place on Earth.