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

Business Insider US

  • With its $55 million (R644 million) opening weekend take in China, Dwayne Johnson's latest movie, "Rampage," proved that the star is one of the few actors who can bring in major coin across the world.
  • But his dominance in China, the second-largest movie market in the world, 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 how it did in North America. That’s because things are changing drastically for an industry where the domestic box office has been considered the true indicator of a movie’s worth for over a century.

Since the early 2000s, the movie industry in China has gone from almost non-existent to the second-largest market in the world. And by 2020 it could surpass the US to become number one, as movie theatres continue to be built at a hurried pace to feed the interest of not just the Hollywood titles, but the country’s burgeoning homegrown production industry.

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

That last one has become an easy answer: Dwayne Johnson.

His latest CGI (and testosterone) heavy blockbuster, “Rampage,” won the US box office over the weekend with a $34.5 million (R416.5 million) take for its studio Warner Bros. But what the movie did in China has the studio ecstatic, as it took in $55 million (R644 million) to go along with its $114.1 million (R1.3 billion) 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 Furious” franchise with 2011’s “Fast Five.” But the potential of his worth in China came with the success of “Furious 7” in 2015.

In 2013, “Fast & Furious 6” became the first-ever movie in the Universal franchise to play in China (though there were undoubtedly years worth of bootlegs of the previous movies floating around the country). It took in a respectable $66.5 million (R802.8 million) there. But when “Furious 7” played there in 2015, it went gangbusters, taking in a $391 million (R4.7 billion) total in China. A few months later, Johnson proved he didn’t need the “Fast” fam to make it in China, as “San Andreas” opened there and went on to earn $103.2 million (R1.2 billion).

"The Fate of the Furious" earned $392.8 million (R4.7 billion) in China.
The next movie with Johnson in it that went to China was 2016’s “Moana” ($32.7 million (R394.8 million), and then in 2017 “The Fate of the Furious” once more found incredible success there with a $392.8 million (R4.7 billion) total, going on to help the movie earn a $1.2 billion (R14.4 billion) worldwide total.

With audiences in China already getting a glimpse of Johnson this year with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” when the movie opened there in January ($78 million (R941.7 million), the $55 million (R664 million) “Rampage” opening proves it doesn’t matter if he’s with an ensemble or solo: They want to see Dwayne Johnson.

"Johnson continues to prove that he is the most bankable star in the world with his growing global appeal,” 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 $150 million (R1.8 billion) 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,” the first time he ever visited 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 theater, 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 humor,” said the source.

Along with the $55 million (R664 million) opening weekend, "Rampage" took in $15.7 million (R189.5 million) 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, 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 greenlit 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 proving he's an exception to the current trend. He's already a household name in the US and he's ahead of most stars in conquering China.

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