I don’t understand how Warcraft received a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, yet has an audience score of 71% and a 7.0 out of 10 on IMDB. The movie wasn’t that bad… I mean what do you expect from a video game movie? You’re definitely not watching it for the amazing plotline. The whole Warcraft plotline can be summed up in one short sentence. Humans fighting Orcs.
I actually thought the movie had a little something for everyone. There was the lore for the hardcore Warcraft junkies, some romance for the ladies, tons of action and fighting, beautiful CGI, and even some twists and turns in the plot to keep you guessing. While it may not win any Oscars (it didn’t), I don’t think it was the garbage dumpster fire so many critics claimed it was.
As a random side note, I only went to watch Warcraft with my wife because I wanted to support a Starcraft movie. Now hear me out. I love all of Blizzard’s games, but most of my high school days were spent pwning noobs in Starcraft and it will always have a special place in my heart. My logic was, if the Warcraft movie does well, it may eventually pave the way for a Starcraft movie, something I so desperately want to see in my lifetime. And although I love Starship Troopers and it could possibly double as a Terran vs. Zerg movie, it just isn’t the same as a pure Starcraft movie. If you ever read this Blizzard, please please please make it happen.
Anyway I was curious how Warcraft did at the box office because during the time it came out in China, everyone I knew here was talking about it. When I looked up the results, I was pretty surprised. It completely bombed in the US market, but absolutely crushed the Chinese market.
Why did the movie do so well in China, but not in the US? I think there were two main drivers that, in conjunction, practically guaranteed its success: a large and nostalgic target audience, and ridiculous over-promotion.
1. Large and Nostalgic Target Audience
When Warcraft III came out in 2002, it immediately gained a following in China. At the time, the Internet was just beginning to pick up speed in China and Internet cafes began popping up all over the place.
My wife told me that basically every single guy in her high school class played Warcraft. She’s even played the game because her boyfriend at the time made her play. She said there were days when half the guys skipped class because they were at an Internet cafe playing Warcraft.
For me, I loved Blizzard games growing up, so I know how addictive they can be. They are designed so well, and the games are super balanced, so it remained competitive when you played multiplayer. And it’s just fun to play with friends. This was how my friends and I felt about Starcraft, so I can imagine it was similar for Warcraft. Oh, did I also mention that China has a lot of people? Roughly 1.3 billion people. So yeh, there were probably a lot of kids that thought the same as I did, and that played Warcraft.
Then in 2005, a Chinese pro gamer Li “Sky” Xiaofeng unexpectedly won first place at the World Cyber Games (WCG) for Warcraft III, beating players like Grubby and FoV. In 2006 he won again, and was the first player to win back-to-back Warcraft III WCG titles. He was so popular that he was featured in a documentary about the world of professional gaming, “Beyond the Game.” That guy is a Chinese legend, and his accomplishments certainly helped boost the popularity of Warcraft in China even more.
Also over the years, World of Warcraft (WoW) came out (which was also crazy successful in China in the MMORPG genre), along with Defense of the Ancients (Dota), which was a mod for Warcraft III that was originally based on a Starcraft mod and was one of the first major games in the MOBA genre.
So throughout the 2000’s, you have all these kids playing Warcraft games, spending tons of hours (and money) honing their skills, whether at Warcraft III, WoW, or Dota. That’s essentially what I was doing when I spent countless hours in high school playing Starcraft (and to a lessor extent Diablo 2). I never actually got into Warcraft or that probably would have been the end of my life.
Fast forward to 2016 when the Warcraft movie came out. A lot of those kids are now in their 20’s and 30’s, the age where they’ve entered the workforce and have a bit of disposable income. Most have probably stopped playing, but for them, there is still the sense of nostalgia thinking about this game, since they spent so many wonderful, carefree hours playing.
I know that’s how I felt about Starcraft, and why I got so excited when Starcraft 2 came out. Then it shouldn’t be a surprise that these ex-players would want to re-live a part of their childhood through the big screen. This is exactly how I would feel if a Starcraft movie came out, and what I expect a lot of Warcraft players felt when this movie came out.
2. Ridiculous Over-Promotion
The month or so leading up to the premiere of Warcraft in China was ridiculous. Commercials everywhere. People posting moments on their Wechat about the movie. Tons of celebrities (some of whom have probably never actually played the game) promoting the movie. Gigantic premieres and massive events.
Well, there was a reason why it was so heavily marketed.
Haha, everything always comes back to money. I guess what they say is true, you just have to follow the money. So many Chinese parties had a huge vested interest in this movie that there was no way it wouldn’t do well.
First off, to help finance the $160 million budget, Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind Warcraft, sold equity to 4 local stakeholders; China Film Group, Tencent, Taihe, and Huayi.
China Film Group is a state-owned enterprise that is the largest producer and distributor of Chinese content. They are extremely influential with the Chinese government. And if you know anything about China, it’s that relationships with the government matter. And because of this relationship, they have a monopoly on the imported film industry, and any movie that wants to come to China basically needs to work with them.
Every year, there is a limit on the number of foreign films that can be distributed in China (I think its like 30 some films). By giving equity to China Film Group, Legendary ensured that Warcraft would first and foremost be able to access the Chinese market.
Before I talk about Tencent’s impact, I want to mention that Legendary was acquired by Dalian Wanda Group for $3.5 billion in early 2016. Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate, owns Wanda Cinemas, which owns roughly 20% of the cinemas in China and is the largest film distributor in China.
So now you have China Film Group and Wanda Cinemas, the largest players in film distribution in China working together on this project. It’s no wonder then that Warcraft premiered in about 67.5% of China’s theaters, the largest rollout ever for any film in China (BTW, 2nd was Fast and Furious 7, which premiered in about 63% of theaters).
Now back to Tencent. Tencent owns Wechat, which is similar to WhatsApp in the US. But unlike the US, which also has Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Snapchat and other social networking products, in China its basically Wechat (QQ is also popular, albeit kind of dying, but guess who owns them? Yep, Tencent). Everyone in China is on Wechat, so not only is it a social network behemoth, it has unparalleled commercial and marketing potential.
So in a nutshell, that’s essentially what Tencent did. They promoted the movie heavily on Wechat. Also, one of the functionalities of Wechat is that they can sell movie tickets on the mobile app, and Tencent utilized promotions and rewards to pre-sell tickets. Because of Tencent’s ability to reach so many consumers through their Wechat platform, their marketing campaign for Warcraft definitely made sure everyone in China knew about the movie.
Taihe and Huayi had smaller equity stakes, so I won’t comment on their contributions to the movie.
It’s pretty clear a lot of planning went into making Warcraft a success in China. The producers knew that there would be a large audience here that would pay to see the movie, and they capitalized on this by making sure the movie got tons of marketing exposure.
I think in the future, you’ll see a lot more of these types of arrangements, in which Hollywood production companies team up with local Chinese companies to bring out these mega projects. China has one of the fastest growing movie markets, and I saw a few articles that predicted movie ticket sales in China could surpass those in the US as early as this year (2017). So Hollywood is definitely looking to cash in on this.
And as I mentioned earlier, my only skin in the game is waiting for a Starcraft movie. Honestly, just watch any of these Starcraft II cinematics and tell me you don’t get excited.
I get serious nerd chills every time I watch these. Come on Blizzard, you gotta make this happen.