Disney Faces Growing Barriers to Chinese Box Office

“A Whole New World” from Aladdin, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, “A Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid — they’re some of Disney’s biggest soundtrack hits, but could also double as descriptions of the chummy relationship the House of Mouse has had with the powerhouse Chinese box office in recent years.

But now, China’s tune on cultural imports is changing, and the Magic Kingdom can only “Wish Upon A Star” to regain access to the world’s biggest moviegoing market.

Not So Happily Ever After

For much of Hollywood history, China was largely walled off from Western films. But Beijing gradually lowered the barriers through the 21st century, allowing (approved) foreign-culture purveyors access to its 1.4 billion citizens. By 2019, the Chinese market accounted for nearly a quarter of the box office haul for Disney and Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, then the highest grossing movie of all time.

But under President Xi Jinping’s direction and amid tense relations with the U.S., China’s censors are exerting more scrutiny on American imports. For Disney, it’s as if the Genie has been put back in the lamp:

  • Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may have shaken American theatergoers from their Covid-induced slumber, but the smash flick still hasn’t been released in mainland China. This comes after old comments emerged from its China-born Canadian star Simu Liu, who recalled a “third world” country where people were “dying of starvation.”
  • The Disney-owned superhero studio’s next film, Eternals, is scheduled for release early next month. But its future in China remains in limbo as censors consider critical comments from director Chloe Zhao, per the WSJ.

Even Censors Can’t Resist Ryan Reynolds: One of the few Hollywood blockbusters to make it to the Middle Kingdom in recent months is Disney and 20th Century Fox’s video game-inspired comedy Free Guy. The movie dominated the box office there for three weeks, bringing in $89 million as of late September — almost as much as its $108.8 million domestic U.S. take.

Space Jammed: Disney isn’t the only studio struggling to get on screens in China these days. Warner Brothers has also seen two 2021 movies barred from release: G.I. Joe spinoff Snake Eyes and the Lebron James Space Jam reboot. Of course, audiences there didn’t really miss much with either of those…

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