CHANGZHOU — At ten minutes ‘til midnight, a small crowd smoked and took selfies outside of the China Film Oriental International Cinema on the top floor of the open-air Laimeng Metropolitan Mall in downtown Changzhou, a prefecture-level city in eastern China. Inside, filmgoers lined up for concessions ranging from popcorn and sodas to dried beef and corn juice. Despite the surfeit of snack options and combos like the “concise individuality set meal,” one group of filmgoers openly smuggled grocery bags stuffed with beverages and vacuum-sealed blocks of fermented tofu. At a few minutes to midnight, viewers lined up to claim their 3-D glasses and enter a 300-plus-seat theater. May 12 had arrived, and Marvel’s much-ballyhooed superhero sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron had landed in China.

Moviegoers in Changzhou and elsewhere spent $33.9 million on Age of Ultron on May 12 alone, making it China’s biggest weekday opening ever. The film — which reunites Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk to battle a new global menace — debuted on May 1 in the United States, where it is on track to make somewhat less than the original 2012 The Avengers’ massive $623 million domestic haul. Huge sales in China are helping boost Age of Ultron’s global gross, however, which crossed $1 billion three days after its China launch.

China became the world’s second largest film market in 2012, and analysts say it could take the lead from the United States in as little as three to five years. At the same time, Chinese movie mania is extending roots deeper into the country; while huge megalopolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou accounted for 32 percent of the nation’s box office in 2010, by 2014 that share had fallen to 23 percent as ticket sales grew in second and third-tier cities like Changzhou. The trend is clear: As China’s film market grows, the country’s small and medium-sized municipalities will constitute a rising share of the world’s cinema landscape, as well as decide the financial fates of more and more of Hollywood’s biggest films.

Catching a flick  in Chinese flyover country retains a Wild West feel even in Changzhou, only about one hundred miles from the metropolis of Shanghai, and itself home to an urban population of 3.3 million. The raucous audience at Age of Ultron’s midnight premiere chatted openly throughout the showing, occasionally revealing East-West culture gaps. “Is that Ultraman?” a fan asked when a red-clad character resembling the 1960s Japanese superhero appeared late in the film. (Spoiler alert: stuffed with characters though it is, Age of Ultron does not feature Ultraman.) Theaters here also tend to reflect the fortunes of China’s commercial property boom, whose tendency to excess is strongest in lower-tier cities. Shopping centers are feeling the strain as online shopping hollows out store sales, and developers count ever more heavily on movie theaters and other entertainment venues to pull in customers. More than a dozen new malls have opened in Changzhou over the past five years. Most of them contain new multiplexes.

On the plus side, this means local movie fans get to enjoy theaters like the Wanda Cinema in the brand new Wanda Plaza shopping mall that opened in the city’s south in late 2014. The Wanda Group is China’s largest developer and, following its 2012 purchase of U.S. theater chain AMC Entertainment, the largest cinema operator in the world. On May 12, a couple in their 20s took selfies in Marvel t-shirts while waiting to enter the Wanda Cinema’s Age of Ultron screening, touting the cinema’s huge IMAX theater as the best seat in town.

If Wanda’s IMAX represents the high end of Changzhou’s movie-going spectrum, then at the opposite extreme sit cinemas in places like Maoye Commercial Street, a struggling mall in the city’s southern suburbs. A casualty of Changzhou’s shopping center binge, only a handful of holdouts like the Jackie Chan Cinema keep the place from joining the country’s ranks of deserted ghost malls. Eager Age of Ultron fans must circumnavigate a dark, cavernous atrium that once housed the mall’s anchor department store and climb motionless escalators to the fourth floor, dodging pools of water and broken tiles that have fallen from the mall’s swollen, leaky ceilings. The tumbling chunks of concrete that local media reported as having struck shoppers last October were thankfully not an issue when this author visited the week of Age of Ultron’s premiere. Given the location, one might expect the Jackie Chan Cinema to be among those struggling in a competitive market, but staff say that tickets — at least for Age of Ultron — are selling nicely.

Another possible challenge to Hollywood’s heartland push is Chinese piracy, as street shops in second, third, and fourth-tier cities continue to hawk illegitimate DVDs of recent U.S. films with a brazenness no longer common on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. But booming box offices and talks with filmgoers suggest that the temptation of nearly free content does little to dissuade many residents from enjoying a night out with Hollywood’s latest. Asked why they visit the theater when cheap DVDs and online piracy are readily accessible, a couple waiting to see Age of Ultron at the Laimeng Metropolitan Mall said they would never consider watching a new American movie at home. “It’s boring. We can see domestic films at home. Foreign movies are better when you can see them on a big screen and react and laugh with others.” Buying on Chinese Groupon-type platforms means that “theater tickets are pretty cheap, too.”

So popular are highly anticipated American blockbusters that the skeletons of decaying ghost malls and the ubiquity of knockoff DVDs are unlikely to keep residents of Changzhou and other Chinese cities out of the multiplexes. Indeed, the main question at the end of Age of Ultron’s lucrative first week in China is whether its gross has a shot at cutting short the reign of the country’s latest box office king and fellow Hollywood hit,Furious 7, what Chinese call “su qi” for short. Early numbers and audience reactions suggest that the Fast and Furious sequel’s crown may be secure. As the house lights turned on and audiences filed out of Age of Ultron’s midnight premiere, a female Changzhou fan gave this reporter a pithy review: It was good, but “not as good as su qi.”

By WARNER BROWN May 19, 2015 in Foreign Policy