The highest grossing movie on planet earth in 2020 was China’s The Eight Hundred, becoming the first title outside the Hollywood system to accomplish the feat with $450.4 million, according to numbers provided to Boxoffice PRO by Chinese distributor Huayi Brothers. The film beat Sony’s Bad Boys For Life, the year’s second-biggest earner with $426.5 million total.
The action drama directed by Guan Hu was based on the true story of 452 Chinese soldiers who fought against thousands of Japanese invaders in a 1937 battle. (The title The Eight Hundred is based on the exaggerated number of troops their commander claimed they had.)
The first Chinese film shot entirely on IMAX cameras, more than 99 percent of of its earnings came in mainland China, with $448.2 million. When Tenet — the first major Hollywood release since the pandemic — debuted in China on the September 4 weekend, The Eight Hundred beat it at the box office there despite being on its third frame. With token grosses in a few other markets, the film has only earned $373 thousand in North America.
Released on August 21 after a yearlong delay following a planned 2019 release, the film likely would have been a local smash anyway. But it particularly struck a nerve with Chinese audiences this year as a story of patriotic pride amid the country’s plummeting global reputation.
Of course, the pandemic and resulting depressed global box office skewed the scales considerably. Despite the surging Chinese box office of recent years, The Eight Hundred‘s top spot on the global year-end charts likely doesn’t portend a new normal. In 2019, all of the top 10 movies at the global box office were Hollywood products. That year, The Eight Hundred would have ranked as only the #17 film globally, while Bad Boys For Life would have ranked #19.
Nonetheless, The Eight Hundred now stands as the ninth-biggest movie of all time in China. 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2 leads that list, in which nine of the top 10 are Chinese films, with the only Hollywood title being 2019’s Avengers: Endgame at #4.
The Eight Hundred‘s 2020 success comes amid a larger story: China’s overall box office overtook the U.S. for the first time in 2020. While that tipping point was projected to occur at some point during the next decade, China tamped down on COVID-19 more than almost any other country due to aggressive lockdown measures, allowing cinemas to come back during the second half of 2020 to a level few other nations matched.
In 2019, though, China’s total box office came in at $9.2 billion, versus $11.4 billion in the U.S./Canada. Depending on the speed of vaccine rollout, it’s possible that the U.S. could regain its title as the world’s largest box office market in 2021.