Will Time Warner Stock Fly As Superman Invades China?

Is there a superhero more quintessentially American than Superman? The hero that came to stand for "truth, justice, and the American way"? Probably not, yet Chinese filmgoers love him anyway.

Henry Cavill plays an American icon in Man of Steel. Sources: IGN and Warner Bros.

Man of Steel, a retelling of the character's origin but with a darker twist, claimed nearly 80% of box office receipts, or $5.86 million, on its opening day in China. The film entered this weekend having already topped $35 million in ticket sales, according to data cited by The Hollywood Reporter.

Worldwide, Box Office Mojo pegs Man of Steel's haul at $422.1 million through Friday, with $188 million of that from overseas territories.

For Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) stock investors, a big reception around the globe increases the odds that Man of Steel can be for DC what 2008's Iron Man was for Marvel: a stepping stone to a wider franchise. That Chinese moviegoers are already interested is a welcome sign.

Yet DC has a long way to go if it's to catch Marvel and studio parent Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) . Iron Man 3 set a new single-day record during its Chinese debut, grossing $21.1 for during its launch.

Still, any progress is worth noting, since Chinese consumers have been slower to embrace DC films. Take The Dark Knight Rises, which grossed $52.8 million in China. Impressive, right? Sure, but U.K. viewers accounted for $90.3 million in ticket sales.

By contrast, Marvel's The Avengers earned $84.1 million in Chinese theaters, versus $80.4 million in the U.K. China already likes what Disney and Marvel have to offer, while the censors are still getting to know Warner and DC.

What 1 billion people can do for Superman and his friends
Man of Steel is a good start. But Warner's next steps are critical. China's annual movie market tops more than $2 billion despite efforts to keep a tight lid on features. Regulators allow for only 20 U.S. film imports each year, with another 14 premium screenings of 3-D or IMAX (NYSE: IMAX  ) films.

Studios, meanwhile, get only 25% of the box-office haul from Chinese screenings. Still a big number for a tentpole film -- already more than $8 million for Man of Steel, if THR's figures are to be believed  -- but also a far cry from the 50-50 theater split common to other territories around the world.

Warner's best bet for maximizing the opportunity may be to bear-hug IMAX, which saw a 58% boost in revenue from showings in Greater China in the first quarter. The company was serving 113 theaters in the region as of March 31 -- up from 73 the year prior -- with 117 more still to be completed.

We've seen it work before. Christopher Nolan used IMAX cameras to great effect in all three of his Batman films, and that franchise resulted in $2.4 billion in worldwide grosses for DC and Warner.

Whether or not IMAX offers the best path to profit, Warner needs a consistent strategy for exploiting China's appetite for American pop culture. Investors expect nothing less -- and rightfully so.

Now it's your turn to weigh in. Have you seen Man of Steel yet? If so, does the film make you more or less likely to buy Time Warner stock now? Leave your comments in the box below.

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10/23/2014 4:00 PM
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