By Laura He, CNN Business
A Chinese sci-fi comedy about an astronaut stranded on the moon has shattered summer box office records in China, providing much-needed lift to the world’s second largest cinema industry that continues to grapple with Covid lockdowns.
“Moon Man,” which was adapted from a webtoon of the same name by Korean illustrator Cho Seok, has attracted more than 50 million moviegoers in China since its release two weeks ago and grossed 2.22 billion yuan ($330 million) in ticketing sales, according to Chinese real-time box office app Dengta.
The film tells the story of a Chinese astronaut’s attempts to survive alone on the moon, where he is accidentally left behind by his teammates.
The astronaut — played by star comedian Shen Teng — goes on to believe that he is the last human in the universe after watching an asteroid hit the Earth. However, many survivors on earth — including his team leader played by top Chinese actress Ma Li — are watching his every move via live-streaming and trying to bring him home.
The movie had the highest number of screenings for a film in China on its opening day, and has become one of the top grossing sci-fi movies in Chinese history.
“Moon Man” had the second highest weekend debut globally of 2022, only trailing Disney’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” according to data from Dengta and Box Office Mojo, a US box office tracking site.
Thanks to the robust weekend debut, China’s box office receipts grew in July for the first time in five months, up 9% from the same period last year.
China’s movie market is going through a tough time. Hit by strict Covid lockdowns, the country’s box office plunged 38% in the first half of this year from a year ago, according to data from Chinese ticketing app Maoyan.
The number of moviegoers also shrank sharply to 398 million, down 42% from the same period last year.
To revive the industry, the government has handed out ticket coupons to encourage people to go to cinemas. On Thursday, the China Film Administration announced it would partner with major ticketing platforms to give away 100 million yuan ($15 million) worth of such discount coupons from August to October.
The regulator also said it will accelerate the screening of new movies and blockbusters in theaters, encourage more cinemas to expand into rural areas, and cut taxes for the movie industry.
“Moon Man” was produced by Mahua FunAge, a Chinese comedy film and stage show producer, and backed by a number of entertainment industry giants, including Alibaba Pictures and Maoyan Entertainment.
The film has so far only released in mainland China. It remains unclear whether it will hit overseas markets.
Analysts at Chinese brokerage firms now expect the movie’s total box office to reach between 4 billion yuan ($594 million) to 5.5 billion yuan ($816 million), which could make it China’s highest-grossing film of the year.
China’s box office rakes in billions of dollars a year, rivaling the United States and Canada combined.
In 2020, it became the world’s biggest movie market, as its theaters were able to recover from the impact of the Covid pandemic more quickly than those in North America. The trend continued last year.
This year, however, the balance has tilted again. US theaters have bounced back, while China continues to maintain a strict “zero Covid” policy that keeps many of its cinemas in limbo. That puts North America’s box office slightly ahead so far in 2022, generating about $5 billion compared with China’s $3.3 billion, according to latest data from Box Office Mojo and Dengta.
Some of the biggest global hits this year — including “Top Gun: Maverick” — have not been released in China, as the country’s box office becomes more insular and more heavily regulated.
CNN Business’ Michelle Toh contributed to this report.
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