Netflix just picked up one of China’s biggest theatrical hits to woo Chinese audiences everywhere

On the set of China’s “The Wandering Earth.”
On the set of China’s “The Wandering Earth.”
Image: City of Qingdao via AP Images
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Netflix may be locked out of operating in China, where government regulation favors homegrown rivals like iQiyi, Tencent Video, and Alibaba’s Youku. But that hasn’t stopped the US-based streaming-video giant from courting Chinese audiences outside of China.

The company picked up the international streaming rights to one of China’s biggest movies ever, The Wandering Earth, it announced today. After being released in Chinese theaters in early February, over the lunar New Year, it quickly became the second-highest grossing movie ever in China, unadjusted for inflation, with $609 million in box-office returns worldwide. It’s expected to eclipse China’s top-earning film, Wolf Warrior 2, when its run is through. The Wandering Earth is also the top-grossing movie of the year worldwide at the present.

The film is based on a short story of the same name by author Liu Cixin, whose novel The Three-Body Problem won a prestigious Hugo Award. The movie centers on a plan to move Earth to a new home, as the Sun has become unstable and threatens to consume it. The film has been praised for its eye-popping special effects and Chinese spin on the sci-fi genre.

Netflix has not yet said when The Wandering Earth will land on its service.

China has been the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Netflix’s quest for global domination. The streaming-video company is everywhere in the world except China, where it would need permission from the government to operate, and places where the US government restricts American companies from doing business, including Crimea, North Korea, and Syria. Netflix has still managed to make minor inroads into China. It licensed some of its original series, like Black MirrorStranger Things, and Mindhunter, to Baidu’s iQiyi, and bought the streaming rights to other Chinese productions, like the teen action movie Animal World, outside of China. The deal for The Wandering Earth is another effort to get in front of Chinese audiences, wherever Netflix can.

“This is a movie created for the Chinese audience around the world,” said Frant Gwo, the film’s director, in a statement. “To my surprise, this movie also resonate[s] outside Mainland China. Netflix will translate it into 28 languages, enabling more viewers to enjoy it regardless of geographical and linguistic differences. I hope they will like it.”

Netflix has staked much of its global expansion on being able to make local stories land globally. It’s had success in markets like Latin America and India, where series such as 3% out of Brazil and Sacred Games in India have found audiences beyond their respective regions of origin. The Wandering Earth has already screened in a small selection of theaters in the US, as well as Australia and New Zealand. The release of the film on Netflix will be a test not only of whether Netflix can court Chinese audiences, but also whether China’s blockbusters can make a global splash online.