Disney Uses Shanghai Resort to Pump Up 'Pirates of Caribbean' Opening

  • Film is Hollywood’s first to make global premiere on mainland
  • Newest picture in series could earn more in China than U.S.

Walt Disney Co.’s latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” picture could gross more in China than in the U.S. as the world’s largest entertainment company capitalizes on the success of its new Chinese resort with a world premiere in Shanghai on Thursday.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the fifth in a series starring Johnny Depp, will be the first Hollywood movie to hold its formal opening event in mainland China, according to the Burbank, California-based company. The previous “Pirates” feature was in 2011. 

The opening of Disney’s $5.5 billion Shanghai resort last year has earned the company goodwill in the world’s No. 2 movie market. The film, which makes its theatrical opening in U.S. and China on May 26, secured a rare public holiday release window in China. The Dragon Boat Festival runs from May 28 to May 30 and is typically reserved for domestic film openings, as are other holidays.

A visitor poses with an actor dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" at Walt Disney Co.'s Shanghai Disneyland theme park during a trial run ahead of its official opening, in Shanghai, China, on Wednesday, June 8, 2016. With the new $5.5 billion resort opening on June 16, Disney will have six resorts globally, capitalizing on the company's six decades of running theme parks. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
A visitor poses with an actor dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" at Shanghai Disneyland theme park.
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

“Pirates” could pull in 1.56 billion yuan ($226 million) in China, according to UBS analysts Zhijing Liu and Corrine Hu. That exceeds the $212 million prediction for North America by BoxOfficePro.com and would add the newest “Pirates” film to a short yet growing list of Hollywood films that count China as their top market. The film opens over the Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., with analysts at BoxOfficePro forecasting domestic ticket revenue of $84 million from Friday to Monday.

The premiere, featuring a red-carpet lineup of the main cast, including Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush and Orlando Bloom, is taking place as the Disney Shanghai Resort welcomes the 10 millionth guest since its June opening.

“As the resort has become a true national destination in China, attendance is outpacing our most optimistic projections and the park’s performance is exceeding our expectations,” Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said Tuesday on an earnings call.

The Shanghai resort has also been a frequent stop for celebrities promoting Disney films. Emma Watson and Dan Stevens were flown over for the China release of “Beauty and the Beast” earlier this year.

Treasure Cove, the first pirate-themed land at a Disney park, was created especially for the Shanghai resort and has been among the top attractions there. The new resort was “modestly profitable” in the past quarter, and is expected to break even for the fiscal year, Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said on the call.

Young Audiences

The main question over the new “Pirates” is whether younger audiences will embrace the film, according to UOB Kayhian Investment Co. analyst Mark Chen. 

“The audience that adored the last ‘Pirates’ six years ago has grown old and it remains to be seen whether the main audience today, over half of them in their 20s, will share the same affection for the franchise,” said Chen, who predicts the movie will bag 1.16 billion yuan in ticket sales in China.

To further prop up local interest, Disney hosted a binge-screening of the previous four “Pirates” movies in the non-competition sector of the Beijing International Film Festival last month. Only the third and fourth movies had theatrical releases in China.

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” cost $240 million to make, according to a person familiar with the matter. The movie follows the conflict between Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and ghost pirates led by Bardem’s Captain Salazar who are determined to kill every pirate at sea.

Analysts are predicting a strong recovery for China’s film market this year, based on the pipeline of films coming out of Hollywood. Box-office revenue surged 49 percent in April from a year ago, the biggest monthly gain since February 2016, thanks to “The Fate of the Furious,” which claimed over half of the monthly ticket sales.

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The previous installment, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” pulled in 464 million yuan in China, the third-highest grossing title of the year in the market, trailing “Transformers” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

— With assistance by Jing Yang De Morel, Christopher Palmeri, Gregory Turk, and Anousha Sakoui

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