LOS ANGELES — At Chinese New Year parties around the world, red-clad revelers are celebrating the arrival of the year of the monkey. But for Hollywood, this one’s all about a black-and-white bear.
“Kung Fu Panda 3,” the latest installment in the comedy series from DreamWorks Animation, delivered at the box office despite its release date of Jan. 29 — the heart of Hollywood’s dead zone. According to media research firm Rentrak, “Kung Fu Panda 3” topped both the international and domestic box office last weekend, reeling in about $117 million across the globe and $41 million in the United States.
DreamWorks and Fox, the production company’s distributor, took a risk with the time of the movie’s release, but it’s one that was rewarded and could give Hollywood more confidence in releasing bigger-budget films during the Chinese New Year season.
The movie’s domestic performance did fall short of the opening weekends of the first two “Kung Fu Panda” films, which brought in about $60 million and $47 million when they were released in the summers of 2008 and 2011. But $41 million for a late-January opening — typically the slowest moviegoing time of the year — isn’t bad at all.
“It was a bold move to open the movie in late January but it paid off,” Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told Variety.
Fox and DreamWorks made sure the domestic audience didn’t overlook “Kung Fu Panda 3.” They promoted the film with as robust a marketing campaign as has been seen for a midwinter release. The movie’s backers teamed up with Amazon to give away downloads of the original “Kung Fu Panda” to customers who bought another eligible item in an offer that lasted through Jan. 1; it was Amazon’s biggest-ever movie giveaway.
Angelenos stuck in traffic couldn’t help but notice the “Kung Fu Panda 3” ads plastered across many of the city’s buses. Popular frozen yogurt chain Yogurtland is rolling out five “Kung Fu Panda”-inspired flavors throughout January and February, as well as five collectible spoons.
And in China, pop star Luhan — who also made an official music video for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” — released a promotional video for “Kung Fu Panda 3.”
The advertising blitz in the U.S. and China certainly appeared to pay off, but the movie’s proven international appeal also lessened the risk of shifting the release date at home. “Kung Fu Panda 3” brought in more than $75 million outside the United States — including about $58 million in China alone, where it also topped the box office — in its opening weekend. To put that in perspective, “Kung Fu Panda 2” made a total of $92 million in China in 2011, when the country’s box office was less than one-third as large as it is today.
But most critically to the film’s international success, “Kung Fu Panda 3” was a true co-production between DreamWorks and a handful of Chinese companies, which allowed it to screen in China during the New Year window, a time traditionally closed to Western films. That hasn’t historically been a huge deal, because Hollywood tends not to release tentpole movies during that window, and the Chinese box office has been both financially significant and open to Western filmmakers for only a few years.
By shifting to the winter, “Kung Fu Panda 3” may have left some domestic box-office money on the table. But positioning its release date during the busiest moviegoing time in China, soon to be the world’s biggest movie market, should deliver international revenue that will more than make up for any domestic shortfall, based on initial results. With the first winter “Kung Fu Panda” doing well enough at home — and providing a blueprint for sliding into Chinese cinemas during the New Year — Hollywood’s holiday season is likely to get a whole lot longer.