When James Cameron’s 1997 hit Titanic established itself as the most popular movie ever at the Chinese box office, it did so with takings of just Rmb281 million ($43.9 million).
Cameron later broke his own record with his blue-skinned alien adventure Avatar in 2009, which earned Rmb1.3 billion.
Since then, the highwater mark for Hollywood takings in China has been surpassed with increasing regularity. Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, took nearly Rmb2.05 billion last year, while Furious 7 is the daddy of them all, raking in Rmb2.5 billion in revenues.
Domestic movies, too, have broken records. Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons earned Rmb1.26 billion in 2013 and Ning Hao’s Breakup Buddies nearly equalled that with Rmb1.2 billion a year later. This year has been dominated by the CGI fantasy epic Monster Hunt, which is the first homegrown movie to pass Rmb2 billion at the box office.
Monster Hunt is now the second highest grossing film of all time in China, having accumulated earnings of over Rmb2.28 billion during its run.
Another of the sensations of the summer so far has been the domestic film, A Hero or Not – also sometimes translated as Pancake Man (or Jianbing Man) – which has taken Rmb1.17 billion.
At a cost of just Rmb2 million to make, the film is one of the most profitable Chinese films ever. And given it has been just granted another month on cinema screens, it may yet break another record at the box office.
The superhero parody features Jean-Claude Van Damme as a villain and Guo Caijie, also known as Amber Kuo, as the hero’s wife. But the star of the piece is Dong Chengpeng, better known as Da Peng, who also wrote and directed it.
Da was seeking to build on the success of his online comedy show Diors Man, which notched up a record six million views in a single day back in 2012 during its first season, and reached 10 million hits in 2013 for episodes in season two.
Part of the appeal of the movie is Da’s ordinariness. “I’ve got ordinary looks, no talent and I moved to Beijing from a small city. I’ve never been a superhero. Ordinary people like myself, all we can do is to move forward,” he told the Global Times.
Records are being broken in animation too. The feature Monkey King: Hero is Back (see WiC291 for more on its plot) usurped Kung Fu Panda 2 to become China’s highest grossing animated film. It has made over Rmb910 million, with 1.42 million people going to see it last week, even after a lengthy 38-day run.
So what is driving China’s record-breaking performance of late? Distribution is crucial. The country now has more than 23,600 cinema screens, the vast majority of which were added in the past two years. Compare this to the 5,000 screens in 2010 and you can see why the box office is on the up-and-up.
It also perhaps highlights just how popular Avatar and Titanic were when they came out, as they registered massive box office performances from a much smaller network of cinemas.
Likewise, the growing involvement of internet firms such as Alibaba and Baidu has done much to encourage more cinemagoing. Online ticketing is becoming a serious factor in the industry’s growth.
“What we have achieved now is in large part due to more new moviegoers, especially in small cities, and to the increase of investment in the movie industry,” Rao Shuguang, secretary general of China Film Association, told Xinhua news agency.
As WiC has pointed out before Chinese movies have also benefited from the annual blackout period over July and August which sees Hollywood movies shunted off screens, giving domestic fare an uninterrupted run at the country’s audiences. This year sure-fire hits from Hollywood such as Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation have both been delayed until September.
The blackout period is a big boost for animation movies, because the schools are on holiday at the same time.
Another reason for the success, according to research outfit Entgroup, has been the increasing pull of moviegoing in second, third and fourth-tier cities. For example, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou made up 24% of the box office for Transformers: Age of Extinction, but accounted for less than 20% of tickets for Monster Hunt.
And marketeers are getting cannier at capturing the breadth of the market. Distributors are focusing on appealing to the youth market in the smaller cities, so expect more records to fall as the hinterland beyond the larger conurbations starts to feature an ever-increasing number of theatres.
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