The Top 10 Movies of 2021 at the Global Box Office

Images courtesy Sony, Alibaba Pictures

The global box office recovery in 2021 was once again led by China. Local Chinese blockbusters represent three of the year’s top six highest-grossing films, reflecting its status as the world’s top cinema market. As the year came to a close, China stood as the highest-grossing territory for half of the top ten films at the global box office. 

While China can mean the difference between a domestic disappointment and a global hit for Hollywood films, studios have learned not to stake their fortunes on China alone. Several of the year’s top Hollywood titles, including Spider-Man: No Way Home, the first billion-dollar hit since 2019, cracked the global top ten without counting on a Chinese release. 

As China’s role in the global film industry continues to grow, so does the threat of piracy. In a year marked by experimentation on release models and shortened theatrical windows, only one film released day-and-date in North America—Warner Bros.’ Godzilla vs. Kong—cracked the top ten highest-grossing films of the year at the global box office. 

Spider-Man: No Way Home

Worldwide Total: $1.161B

Top Markets:

  1. North America | $557.1M
  2. United Kingdom | $76.6M
  3. Mexico | $57.9M
  4. South Korea | $43.2M
  5. France | $42.1M

Scoring the third-highest global opening weekend of all-time is quite the milestone for a film released during the pandemic. To do so in the midst of increased operating restrictions and closures due to the Omicron variant, without the help of a major market like China, speaks to the outsized anticipation for this title. Spider-Man: No Way Home began its global theatrical run in mid-December with a $260 million opening weekend in North America. It became a global phenomenon in nearly every market it was released, bringing pre-pandemic box office figures to several markets for the first time since reopening during the Covid-19 crisis. Spider-Man: No Way Home became the first billion dollar global tentpole of the pandemic era within two weeks of its exclusive theatrical run. 

The Battle at Lake Changjin

Worldwide Total: $902.5M

Top Market: China | $899.4M

The unique circumstances of a worldwide pandemic led 2021 to have a more global top ten than any year besides 2020, when Chinese release The Eight Hundred topped the global charts with a $461.2 million cume. A Hollywood release was back on top this year, with Spider-Man: No Way Home swooping in at the buzzer—but the Chinese market is still well represented, with three titles from the Middle Kingdom cracking the top ten. The historical epic The Battle at Lake Changjin, released in China in October as part of their National Day Golden Week holiday, remained at the top of that country’s box office for a month, until the release of No Time to Die. Several weeks later, it surpassed Wolf Warrior 2 to become China’s highest-grossing film ever. The film performed particularly well in PLF and was instrumental in giving Imax a $30M weekend, its highest ever in the month of October.

Hi, Mom

Worldwide Total: $822M

Top Market: China | $821M

In 2020, cinemas in China were ordered to close on the eve of their Lunar New Year holiday, one of the country’s most important periods for moviegoing. This year, Chinese moviegoers could celebrate the Lunar New Year at the movies—and did so in droves, with the country’s box office hitting the $155M mark for five straight days for the first time ever. Family comedy/drama Hi, Mom—about a woman who travels back in time to befriend her own mother—wasn’t the top grosser of the Lunar New Year, lagging well behind action comedy sequel Detective Chinatown 3. Over the following weeks, positive word-of-mouth helped Hi, Mom film surpass Detective Chinatown 3 to become the second highest-grossing Chinese release of the year. It currently stands as the highest-grossing solely female-directed film of all time.

No Time to Die

Worldwide Total: $774M

Top Markets: 

  1. North America | $160.7M
  2. United Kingdom | $127.6M
  3. Germany | $73.1M
  4. China | $64.6M
  5. France | $31.9M

No other film in 2021 had as much riding on it as No Time to Die. A new distribution team was put in place to bring the latest instalment of the James Bond franchise to cinemas around the world, with MGM/United Artists handling the film’s domestic release and Universal taking over the bulk of overseas markets. The film’s original April 2020 global launch was pushed back several times before landing on Q3 2021, kicking off with a record-setting debut in the United Kingdom. No Time to Die broke countless box office records in its UK run and helped lead a box office recovery for Hollywood titles in Germany. The film’s earnings in North America were a bit more modest, overshadowed by the blockbuster release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage a week prior. Despite the domestic setback, No Time to Die finished 2021 as the second-highest grossing Hollywood title worldwide.

F9: The Fast Saga

Worldwide Total: $726.2M

Top Markets: 

  1. China | $216.9M
  2. North America | $173M
  3. Japan | $33.2M
  4. Mexico | $26.2M
  5. United Kingdom | $22.7M

The ideal film to gauge the global box office recovery halfway through 2021, F9 began its overseas run in the early summer as vaccine access improved in many countries around the world. The film over-performed in the Asia Pacific region with a $200 million-plus haul from China and strong showings in Japan ($33.2M), South Korea ($19.2M), and Australia ($15.8M). The latest entry in the Fast & Furious franchise did not reach the billion dollar benchmark set by the previous two entries in the series, finishing its global run slightly below 2019 spin-off Hobbs and Shaw ($759M). A summertime hit for theaters around the world, F9 set the stage for pre-pandemic attendance levels in several key markets in the third quarter of 2021.

Read our interview with F9’s Justin Lin here. 

Detective Chinatown 3

Worldwide Total: $686.2M

Top Market: China | $685M

Hi, Mom’s fellow Lunar New Year release Detective Chinatown 3 came out the gate strong, setting records for the largest single-marketing opening day ($163 million) and opening weekend ($397 million); it also claimed the biggest single-day admissions total for Imax, with over 975k admissions on opening day. It is by far the biggest earner of the Detective Chinatown franchise, the first two films of which grossed $125.8M and $544.1M, respectively.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Worldwide Total: $501M

Top Markets:

  1. North America | $212.5M
  2. Russia | $32.4M
  3. United Kingdom | $24.7M
  4. Mexico | $24.6M
  5. South Korea | $17.9M

Sony kicked off its stellar Q4 slate with the release of Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a title that exceeded expectations at the box office. Following a period that saw one to two major releases per month at cinemas around the world, Venom: Let There Be Carnage faced strong competition from Warner Bros.’ Dune and MGM/UA/Universal’s No Time to Die when it hit theaters in the Fall of 2021. It overperformed domestically, being one of only three films to cross the $200 million mark in North America. The sequel found great traction in Russia, becoming the only Hollywood title of 2021 to cross $30 million. The film’s global haul would have been considerably higher had it received a Chinese release. China was the top-grossing market for the original Venom, earning $268 million in 2018. Sony has yet to announce an approved release date for Venom: Let There Be Carnage in China, but can still boast having a $500 million global hit on their hands without the help of the original’s biggest market. 

Godzilla vs. Kong

Worldwide Total: $467.8M

Top Markets:

  1. China | $188.7M
  2. North America | $100.5M
  3. Australia | $21.4M
  4. Mexico | $20M
  5. Japan | $16.3M

As the first big Hollywood actioner of 2021, it was all but pre-ordained that Godzilla vs. Kong would smash pandemic records when it was released in North America on March 31. And smash them it did, setting benchmarks for the highest opening-day gross ($9.6M) and highest opening weekend gross ($32.2M three-day/$48.5M five day) of the Covid era. The film performed particularly well in Imax, with viewers seeking out the spectacle that they could not get from watching the film on HBO Max. Though Godzilla vs. Kong got a day-and-date release in North America, in international markets it maintained theatrical exclusivity, contributing to a $121.8M overseas debut. By the end of its run, Godzilla vs. Kong had earned 78.5 percent of its grosses from overseas markets, with China ($188.7) by far its highest earner.

Read our interview with Godzilla vs. Kong’s Adam Wingard here. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Worldwide Total: $432.2M

Top Markets: 

  1. North America | $224.5M
  2. United Kingdom | $29.3M
  3. South Korea | $15.2M
  4. France | $12.9M
  5. Australia | $12.6M

Few would have tapped Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to come out above Disney’s two other Marvel releases in 2021. The film’s domestic appeal drove 52% of the title’s global box office, making it the only movie among the world’s ten highest-grossing films of 2021 to earn more than half its box office in North America. Positive word of mouth saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings edge ahead of Eternals in several key overseas markets during its theatrical run.

Eternals

Worldwide Total: $401.2M

Top Markets: 

  1. North America | $164.5M
  2. South Korea | $27M
  3. United Kingdom | $19.9M
  4. France | $16.1M
  5. Mexico | $15.2M

Closing out the top ten—and landing just ahead of Warner Bros.’ Dune, which closed out the year with $394.5M—is Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, the sixth highest domestic grosser of the year and the fourth Disney title of 2021 to cross the $300M mark globally. Eternals earned nearly 60 percent of its gross in international markets, with South Korea ($27M), the United Kingdom ($19.9M), France ($16.1M), Mexico ($15.2M), and Brazil ($12.8) its highest-earning territories outside of North America. The film, like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, did not receive a theatrical release in China. 

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