Hollywood films had a historically unsuccessful year at the China box office in 2019, data from Chinese authorities and online ticketing platform Maoyan show, although the country’s theatrical revenues rose to a new all-time high.
American titles accounted for just two of the country’s top ten grossers last year, with “Avengers: Endgame” placing third and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” placing tenth. Meanwhile, nine out of China’s top ten highest grossing films of all time are now Chinese, four of which came out in 2019. “Avengers: Endgame” is the only foreign title to remain on the list.
Yet even without Hollywood, the Chinese market continued to grow. Box office revenue rose 5.4% to a new record of $9.2 billion (RMB64.3 billion) in 2019 — albeit at a slower rate of growth than its 9% rise last year.
Chinese animation “Ne Zha,” Chinese new year sci-fi blockbuster “The Wandering Earth,” and “Avengers” were the top three films of the year, followed by patriotic so-called “main melody” films “My People, My Country” and “The Captain.” Bona Film Group backed four out of year’s top ten grossers.
As of the end of 2019, China now has 69,787 cinema screens, up 9,708 from 2018, according to the Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, which added that more than 1.7 billion tickets were sold. The propagandistic publication went so far as to deem the current moment a “golden age” for the Chinese film industry’s development, as “the market bubble fades… and Chinese films continue to steadily improve.”
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One reason is that over the past three years, foreign films have accounted for a shrinking slice of the box office, with Chinese films performing proportionally better. In 2019, Chinese films accounted for 64% of the total box office, or $5.9 million (RMB41.2 billion) in ticket sales — up from 62% in 2018 and 53.8% in 2017. This rise occurred despite there being la smaller percentage difference between the number of films imported in 2019 and the year before, with foreign films making up 22% of 2019’s total number of screened titles.
Other than a few exceptions, including “Avengers: Endgame” and “Frozen 2,” the latest instalments of Hollywood franchises didn’t perform as well their predecessors did in China, indicating audiences eager for something fresh. These included “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” “Jumanji: The Next Level,” “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” and most recently, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
“Local films are catching up to Hollywood on many indicators like IP, story, special effects and genre, while Hollywood films are caught in a bottleneck period of self-repetition and a lack of originality. [Chinese] audiences’ preference for it will naturally decrease,” wrote Chinese website Mirror Entertainment. Chinese viewers in the past year have also started to favor smaller, realistic imports in the vein of “Green Book,” Lebanon’s “Capernaum” and India’s “Andhadhun,” rather than just big U.S. blockbusters, it noted.
Data from Maoyan for the top 20 performing films of the year showed that Chinese films were rated higher by users, both overall as well as separately for story and special effects.
The most successful new genres in China in 2019 were, in order of year-on-year box office earnings, disaster films (e.g. “The Bravest,” which set a box office new record for genre, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters), biographies (“Chinese Pilot,” which also set a genre record, “Green Book”), fantasy (“Ne Zha,” also a record-setter, “Avengers: Endgame”), sci-fi (“Wandering Earth,” also a genre record high) and animation, according to Maoyan. “Box office success is no longer limited by subject or genre — it’s all about the content,” the ticketing firm said.
Last year, movie-going during the four major holiday periods — Chinese New Year, summer, National Day and the calendar new year — accounted for nearly 50% of the total annual number of trips to the cinema, Maoyan said.
Chinese fare took larger market share last year not because of a sudden bonanza of strong local titles, but because a small handful of hits took the lion’s share. Maoyan showed that over the past three years, the market share of big blockbusters grossing more than RMB2 billion ($287 million) in China has steadily increased from 18.5% of the total box office in 2017 to 29.9% in 2018 and 36.9% last year — on the back of just six films. This rise has come at the expense of mid-level films grossing RMB10 million to RMB2 billion, whose market share has fallen over the same period from 80.5% to 62.3%.
Ten out of the 15 films that made over RMB1 billion ($144 million) last year were Chinese, as were 47 out of the 88 films that made more than RMB100 million ($14.4 million).
Last year, China produced a total of 1,037 films, including 850 narrative feature films, 51 animated films, 74 science and educational titles, 47 documentaries, and 15 specialized movies, according to the National Film Bureau. This is down from the 1,082 films put out in 2018, likely due to production slowdowns brought on by new regulations and tax schemes.
The deeply political nature and implications of success in the world’s second-largest film market was highlighted in official Chinese reports on the 2019 statistics, which took care to single out and emphasize how the “main melody,” jingoistic films from the National Day holiday period were a great success.
A spokesperson for the film bureau told the Chinese press that in 2020, the “vast majority” of people working in film should “thoroughly study and implement the important guiding spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping” so as to advance the film industry.
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