How The Rock conquered the China box office and proved he's the biggest movie star on the planet

Warner Bros.‘Rampage.’
  • With its $US55 million opening-weekend take in China, Dwayne Johnson’s latest movie, “Rampage,” is further evidence he’s one of the few actors who can bring in major coin across the world.
  • But his dominance in China, the world’s second-largest movie market, has been years in the making.

For many studio heads these days, glancing at how their latest movie did in China is in some ways more important than seeing how it did in North America. That is because things are changing drastically for an industry in which the domestic box office had been considered the true indicator of a movie’s worth for over a century.

Since the early 2000s, the movie market in China has gone from almost nonexistent to second behind only the US. And it could become No. 1 by 2020, as movie theatres continue to be built at a hurried pace to feed the interest of not just the Hollywood titles but those made by the country’s burgeoning homegrown production industry.

Everyone in Hollywood is trying to figure out how to navigate this sea change. Which stories work best? Which are duds? And which movie stars can rake in the cash?

That last one has become an easy answer: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

His latest CGI (and testosterone) heavy blockbuster, “Rampage,” won the US box office over the weekend with a $US35.8 million take for its studio Warner Bros. But what the movie did in China has the studio ecstatic, as it took in $US55.2 million there as part of a $US115.7 million international gross.

But this is far from an overnight success. The Rock has been big in China for a while.

Dominance years in the making

Johnson’s elevation to a global box-office draw came when he joined the “Fast and the Furious” franchise with 2011’s “Fast Five.” But his potential worth in China expanded dramatically over the next few years.

In 2013, “Fast & Furious 6” became the first movie in the Universal franchise to play in China (though years’ worth of bootlegs of the previous movies were undoubtedly floating around the country). It took in a respectable $US66.5 million there. But when “Furious 7” played there in 2015, it went gangbusters, taking in $US391 million in China. A few months later, Johnson showed he didn’t need the “Fast” fam to make it in China, where “San Andreas” went on to earn $US103.2 million.

Fate of the furious the rockUniversal‘The Fate of the Furious’ earned $US392.8 million in China.

The next movie starring Johnson that went to China was the 2016 animated film “Moana” ($US32.7 million), and then in 2017 “The Fate of the Furious” found incredible success there with $US392.8 million, helping the movie earn $US1.2 billion worldwide.

With audiences in China already getting a glimpse of Johnson this year when “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” opened there in January ($US78 million), the $US55 million “Rampage” opening suggests it doesn’t matter whether he’s with an ensemble or solo: They want to see Johnson.

“Johnson continues to prove that he is the most bankable star in the world with his growing global appeal,” the comScore box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told Business Insider. “It’s hard to imagine any other star who could have catapulted ‘Rampage’ to a nearly $US150 million worldwide debut.”

But in an indication of just how important China is, The Rock made sure to spend some time there before “Rampage” opened.

Mr. Johnson goes to Shanghai

It’s pretty standard to tour the globe for publicity on a major Hollywood release, but when you’re a huge star like Dwayne Johnson, the hustle can be narrowed down to some key regions. And Warner Bros. made sure one of Johnson’s stops was in China.

Johnson went on a promotional tour in Shanghai for “Rampage,” his first time visiting the country’s largest city, a studio source told Business Insider.

And the way he was treated, he’s certain to return.

The movie’s press conference in the city was live-streamed through multiple partners across the country, there was a fan screening in Shanghai’s biggest theatre, and Johnson extended his likability across all ages after he befriended three kids who were dressed as the three monsters from the movie during the press conference (the movie is based on a popular video game in which giant monsters destroy cities).

“Dwayne, or ‘Johnson’ as they call him in China, was in great spirits and charmed all of the audiences with his signature enthusiasm and humour,” the source said.

Along with the $US55 million opening weekend, “Rampage” took in $US15.7 million on its opening day in China, the third-highest opening day ever for a Warner Bros. movie in the country.

“Dwayne Johnson and giant monsters – that’s the perfect recipe for a hit in China these days,” Jeff Bock, a senior analyst for Exhibitor Relations, told Business Insider. “In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was the tipping point for ‘Rampage’ getting green-lit in the first place.”

In an era when the mega movie stars are considered less of a draw than a good superhero movie with “regular” stars, Johnson is showing he’s an exception to the trend. He is already a household name in the US, and he’s ahead of most stars in conquering China.

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