While cinemas in the United States are gathering cobwebs, China’s movie industry has celebrated a much busier Chinese New Year. Last Friday – the first day of the national holiday and traditionally the best day at the box office each year – saw as much as Rmb1.7 billion ($260 million) in ticket sales, compared with Rmb1.4 billion in 2019 (most cinemas were closed in China during last year’s holiday period because of the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown measures).
As many as 34 million people made the trip to movie theatres, breaking the record of 32.6 million in 2018.
The best performing film was originally scheduled to be released last Chinese New Year. Detective Chinatown 3, directed by Chen Sicheng, earned over Rmb2.6 billion in its first weekend, beating Avengers: Endgame‘s record of $357 million in April 2019. The action-comedy follows actors Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran (who were also the leads in the previous two instalments) as the buddy-duo travels to Tokyo to solve a crime. Scores for the film on Douban, a review site, were middling and they began to drop in the days after its debut. But other critics reckoned that this kind of slapstick comedy was exactly what people craved during the holiday season. “For the Spring Festival, do you want a good movie or a film the whole family enjoys? While DC3 is hardly a masterpiece, it is definitely a good product. At the very least, it is a very sound business,” Niu Dundundun, a commentator, claimed.
“Comedies are more suitable for the Lunar New Year vibe,” an audience member also told Sixth Tone. “Especially as Shijiazhuang [a city in northern China] has just endured an outbreak [of Covid-19], we need joy to drive away the lingering haze.”
The success of DC3 is a welcome boost for Wanda Pictures, the producer of the franchise. In late January, the studio warned that it was likely to lose between Rmb6.2 billion and Rmb6.9 billion in fiscal 2020. The company, which operates one of China’s largest cinema chains, cites the closing of cinemas for more than half the year as the main reason for the losses.
Another box office surprise during the holiday period was Hi Mom, directed by comedienne Jia Ling, a famous ‘crosstalker’ who also stars in the lead role. The film tells the story of a young woman (played by Jia) travelling back in time, where she becomes best friends with her own mother. Despite the lack of a bankable cast, the part comedy, part tear-jerker had enjoyed Rmb1.4 billion in ticket sales as of early this week.
A-list starlet Yang Mi’s Assassin in Red came in third in ticket sales, generating a much-lower Rmb356 million. Known internationally as A Writer’s Odyssey, the sci-fi fantasy relied on 800 special effects technicians and reportedly cost Rmb400 million to make, with Variety applauding its “superbly executed chase sequences”. Yang was cast as a villain for the first time in the film, a move that her fanbase may have questioned and may have led to a lower box office haul.
The strong performance in the cinema sector over the last week was never a sure bet. For starters, theatres in China are still required to cap seating capacity at 75% (some areas, such as Beijing, were imposing lower limits of 50% of seats). Audiences have also been required to wear masks inside the cinemas. This doesn’t seem to have dampened demand, however, with cinemas also increasing ticket prices to offset the reduced number of seats they can sell. Average prices reached Rmb50 this year, up nearly Rmb5 compared with a year ago, calculated ticket sales platform Maoyan.
Prior to the holiday period, the authorities had introduced stricter travel measures in many parts of the country. Millions of people accordingly changed their plans to go home for the customary family reunion. Many seem to have chosen to go to the cinema instead. Indeed, in some cases they were actively encouraged to do so. To keep migrant workers in the cities where they are employed, some governments booked up multiplex theatres during less popular hours so such people could watch movies for free.
This month’s holiday season is crucial for China’s film industry as a whole. The Covid-19 outbreak last year led to the closure of theatres, which reverberated back through the entire value chain. Everything from financing to production was caught in a state of limbo. Actors had to look for side gigs to make ends meet (see WiC527).
“This Spring Festival is more competitive than ever. But if the holiday season went well, it will inject some much needed vitality into the film sector. It also offers the industry more optimism and confidence for the new year ahead… From an economic point of view, a thriving box office also proves China’s enormous spending power and the resilience of domestic consumption,” celebrated the Beijing Times.
Or as another insider put it more succinctly, “Thank God, the film industry is back”.
Another feature of the disruption to China’s cinemas over the last 12 months was that the proportion of foreign films plummeted to a 10-year low in sales terms. Non-Chinese films, including Hollywood releases, slipped to 16% of receipts last year from 36% the year before, according to Maoyan.
Part of that was because fewer foreign films were released as studios struggled with the commercial constraints of the pandemic. But domestic audiences have also been responding more positively to local language films, Bloomberg reported this week, amid geopolitical tensions with the United States.
Shawn Robbins, an analyst at Boxoffice.com, said something similar to CNN last month, describing the box office rebound in China in the second half of 2020 as partly due to “the volume of strong, in-demand local content”. This signalled a new challenge for the American studios, which are losing some of their sway with audiences. “There is a clear strength in China’s market that allows them to not rely exclusively on Hollywood products,” Robbins claimed. “That’s an internal advantage of their industry.”
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