Two science fiction movies go head-to-head, one starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, the other Gerard Butler and Andy Garcia. If you had to bet money on which would outgross the other, you’d surely put your money on Ford and Gosling, confident you’d win that bet.
And that’s just what happened with Blade Runner 2049 and Geostorm in North America. The Ford-Gosling starring sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic earned $12.6 million on its opening day, three times as much as the $4.3 million earned in its debut by the Butler-starring Geostorm. In most territories, the former film will easily wind up outgrossing the latter.
Now, take those same two movies and release them in China. Without making any meaningful changes to either picture, you adjust the poster for Geostorm by removing Butler and Garcia’s names and images and replacing them with another actor who isn’t even billed on the U.S. poster: Daniel Wu.
And voilà, with that adjustment in the marketing, you’ve changed everything. When Geostorm opened on Friday against Blade Runner 2049, it outearned the more well-received Ford-Gosling picture by a margin of four-to-one, $10 million to just $2.4 million.
Butler and Garcia are barely known in China, but Wu, who was born in Berkeley, California, is a big star there. The son of immigrants from Shanghai, the 43-year-old Wu grew up in California admiring Jet Li and Jackie Chan. After graduating from the University of Oregon, he moved to Hong Kong in 1997, initially to pursue a modeling career.
Only four months later, the Hong Kong martial arts movie director Yonfan contacted Wu after seeing his image on a bus stop advertisement and asked him to star in his upcoming film Bishonen. Despite the fact that he did not speak Cantonese, Wu performed in the picture and was on his way to a successful career as an action star.
Based ever since in Hong Kong and mainland China, Wu has since appeared in over 60 films, including the hit Overheard movies, Go Away Mr. Tumor and Warcraft.
When Geostorm director Dean Devlin cast Wu, he did so not only for the award-winning actor’s on-screen talent but also for his marquee value in China, where the picture was expected to perform well given the prior success with disaster movies as The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
In contrast to the cynical Hollywood casting of Chinese stars in tiny cameo roles, to which Chinese audiences often react with well-deserved sneers, casting Wu in Geostorm was a well-considered move that has paid off nicely. Though it’s impossible to say how much impact Wu has had on the bottom line, it’s safe to say that his presence in has been vastly more important to Geostorm’s China results than Gerard Butler or any of the picture’s other actors.