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Bringing film to the villages in the Mao era

The movie market in China is estimated to be around US$30 billion, of which box office earnings are only part of the picture.Based on global box office earnings China is now the largest film market in the world. China, beat out the U.S. for the first time ever in 2020, thanks in part to more aggressive Covid-19 lockdown measures that allowed movie theaters in reopen earlier. In 2020, China’s box office pulled in $3 billion, a fall from it $9.3 billion take in 2019, but better than the US, whose box office receipts shrunk to roughly $2.2 billion in 2020 compared to $11.4 billion in 2019. As of November 2021, China accounted for 34 percent of global box office revenue, with the US claiming just 22 percent in 2021, according to Gower Street Analytics projections. [Source: Adario Strange, Quartz, November 12, 2021

The China Film Administration is the government bureaucracy that presides over the Chinese film industry. In the was known by other names and was part of other organizations such as State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). Around 800 movies are made in China every year. China is one of the largest film producers in the world, along with the United States and India. China’s film industry produced over 500 films in 2009, compared to just 100 in 2002. In 2010 more than 520 films were made — about as many as in America. Only India produced more. Only a small number of Chinese films make it to theaters, and many of these are produced by the state-run China Film Group and often play on a swelling national pride to attract wide audiences.

Of the 330 films were made in China in 2006 less than half made it to theaters. Most went straight to DVD. Some were never seen, Blockbusters and romantic comedies dominated the box office. In 2004, SARFT reported 212 films were made and US$182 million was earned at the box office, with Chinese films making up 55 percent of the market. [Source: John A. Lent and Xu Ying, “Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film”, Thomson Learning, 2007]

In November 2021, China’s Film Administration outlined its 14th “Five-Year Plan” for the development of Chinese films with plans to increase movie screens, promote 10 domestic tentpoles each year and which calls for 50 films per annum to earn more than $15.6 million in the market. Domestic movies should also account for over 55 percent of the total annual box office. [Source: Nancy Tartaglione, Deadline, November 25, 2021]

In 2012, Chinese filmmakers produced 893 films but nearly all the really successful movies were Hollywood blockbusters. In recent years Chinese-made film have been doing better. In the 2000s, many films were produced by the state-run China Film Group and often played on a swelling national pride to attract wide audiences. Of the 330 films made in China in 2006 less than half made it to theaters. Most went straight to DVD. Some were never seen. Blockbusters and romantic comedies have traditionally dominated the box office. The Bureau of Film Administration is the government bureaucracy that presides over the Chinese film industry.

The movie business in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan are all intertwined. A Taiwan financed movie, for example, might be filmed on mainland locations with Hong Kong actors. Taiwanese movies were shown for the first time in the 1980s. The takeover of Hong Kong by Chinese in 1997, led to forging of many deals involving mainland studios and Hong producers, anxious to take advantage of mainland's stunning locations, cheap labor and talented film makers. In recent years Beijing has been attracting much of China’s film making and acting talent. The Beijing Film Academy is the top film making school in China. Shanghai hosts the Shanghai International Film Festival

Websites: Chinese Film Classics ; Senses of Cinema; 100 Films to Understand China dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Chinese Movie Database ; Internet Movie Database / ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List ; Love Asia Film; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) ; Directory of Interent Sources ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie ; Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California.

Movie Theater Attendance in China

The New Year’s period is when China’s biggest blockbusters are rolled out to coincide with holidays on January 1 and the all-important Chinese New Year a few weeks later. The director Feng Xiaogang has been synonymous with the hesuipian, or New Year’s celebration film, offering both lighthearted comedic fare like “If You Are the One” for family viewing, and intense, dramatic blockbusters like “Aftershock. [Source: Austin Ramzy, Time magazine, January 17, 2013]

The number of Chinese watching Chinese films declined significantly in the 1980, 90s and 2000s. In 1977, just after the Cultural Revolution, a peak of 29.3 billion people attended films. In 1988, 21.8 billion people attended films. In 1995, 5 billion movie tickets were sold, which is still four times the number as of the United States but about the same on a per capita basis. In 2000, only 300 million tickets were sold. In 2004 only 200 million were sold. The decline has been attributed to television, Hollywood and watching pirated videos and DVDs at home. In the 1980s, about half of all Chinese still didn't have televisions and virtually no one had a VCR.

Chen Changye wrote in Sixth Tone: The rapid spread of privately owned television sets in China during the 1990s — and particularly the advent of cable television in 1992 — allowed Shanghai families to watch a variety of shows in the comfort of their own homes, which meant they naturally spent less time going to the movies. In response to the subsequent slump in box office earnings, the Chinese movie market began to implement a series of reforms. The state-sponsored CCTV film channel, whose official satellite broadcast began in January 1996, was emblematic of the industry reform of the time, which sought to merge television and film. The changing culture around TV and movie consumption was perhaps best summed up in CCTV’s simple slogan: “Turn on the TV, and watch a film.” [Source: Chen Changye, Sixth Tone, June 22, 2017]

“Around this time, the Chinese film industry also rolled out a series of market-oriented reforms, one of which involved marketizing state-run production companies. The abrupt lurch from a planned economy to a market-based economy meant that Central Motion Pictures, the government’s moviemaking behemoth, no longer had a monopoly on the purchase and distribution of films produced by the country’s state-owned studios.

Growth of the Chinese Movie Market

China has been the fastest-growing movie market in terms of revenues in the world for some time. Box-office receipts in 2011 rose 29 percent compared to 2010 to break the $2-billion mark. China is on pace to become the world's second-largest movie market after North America in the early 2010s. While China's box office sales rose in 2009 in revenue in North America, though still far larger at $10.2 billion, had fallen for two straight years.

Thanks in part to a moneyed middle-class willing to shell big bucks for movie tickets revenues topped $5 billion in 2015, up nearly 50 percent from 2014. The huge growth was also driven by theater construction in the so-called third- and fourth-tier cities in the nation’s interior. [Source: Jonathan Landreth, Sky Canaves, Pang-chieh Ho, and Jonathan Papish, China Film Insider, December 31, 2015]

On the rise of Chinese film globally, Francesco Sisci wrote in Asian Times that two primary elements in the growth of Chinese film are “an increase in the importance of the Chinese domestic film market and a global appeal of certain “China issues”. These two things will increase the impact of Chinese culture in our homes. We could then become culturally more Chinese long before China becomes a first-world economy, which could happen in 20 to 30 years. The cultural change could occur with or without critical sense, and possibly only through the almost subliminal impact of future blockbusters made in China or for the Chinese market. Times are tight for acquiring the necessary cultural tools to gain a critical sense of China's complicated culture, past and present.

Growth in China’s box office revenues began to slow in the late 2010s after years of record-breaking expansion, increasing by just 3.7 percent in 2016 compared to 48.7 percent in 2015. That pushed back forecasts of when China’s box office sales would overtake North America’s. Louise Watt of Associated Press wrote: Limited purchasing power and competition from online viewing are taking a toll. So is the generally mediocre selection of films, like the widely panned 2016 staple “League of Gods,” a fantasy epic starring Jet Li and Fan Bingbing that is based on a 16th-century Chinese novel. Ticket prices have risen after several online ticket platforms stopped giving discounts. [Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, January 13, 2017]

Chinese Movie Industry and Money

The entertainment industry in China, of which movies are big part, is big and profitable. It was projected to generate revenues of around $358.6 billion in 2021, according to a report by consultancy PwC. Box office receipts jumped 30 percent in 2012 to $2.7-billion,lifting China to the world’s No. 2 cinema market behind the United States. In 2015, box office revenues in China were more than $6.5 billion, compared to $11 billion in North America, including cinema advertising revenue. In 2019, China pulled in $9.3 billion compared to $11.4 billion in the U.S.

According to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, China’s box office receipts exceeded $1.6 billion in 2010, a 64 percent increase from the previous year. By contrast economic woes sent the 2010 US box office down 5.72 percent to a 13-year low of $10.57 billion. Much of the increase in Chinese receipts was attributed to the success of “Avatar” and Chinese blockbusters such as Feng Xiaogang’s “Aftershock” and “If You Are the One 2". Chinese box office revenues surged 44 percent to $908 million in 2009 according to the state-run China Film Group. Chinese films accounted for 56 percent of the take. In 2005, China's box-office receipts totalled about $230 million.

Tickets for Chinese movies are relatively high — around $13 in 2012. But the growing middle-class are willing and able to pay the price and this has made Chinese theatres an attractive market. According to the Economist reported: The lack of copyright protection means that almost all revenue must come from the box office rather than from DVDs or television. Audiences are paying for the experience of an afternoon away from their cramped apartments, rather than simply to see the film (illegal versions of which are widely available). Cinemas are clean and air-conditioned. Many have state-of-the-art screens and sound systems. The snacks are quite good, too.

Government statistics show Chinese revenues surged from around $140 million in 2003 to $703 million in 2008. Mainland China made about 330 films in 2006, up from 212 films in 2004, which was up 50 percent from 2003, and a figure exceeded only by Hollywood and Bollywood. In 2006, the United States produced 699 feature films. Film revenues in China reached $220 million, a 58 percent increase from 2003. The year 2004 was also significant in that the top 10 Chinese films outgrossed the top 20 foreign films in China. The market grew by almost 44 percent in 2009, and about 30 percent in 2008. In 2009, it was worth US$908 million — about a tenth of the $9.79 billion of US revenues in the previous year.

Growth of Movie Theaters in China

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Majestic Theater in Shanghai
In 2012 the number of Chinese cinema screens reached about 10,000, up from 6,300 in 2011 and 1,500 in 2009, and was still rising at about eight movie screens per day, according to the China Film Group. The Chinese government has said it expects 20,000 screens to be operating by 2015 and 40,000 by 2040, bringing it on par with movie exhibition in North America.

New shopping centers have American-style multiplex theaters Time Warner opened about a dozen movie theaters in China but decided to sell them in 2007 after new laws required Chinese controls and because of limits on foreign films allowed. In the early 2000s, drive in theaters began popping up in a few places. They are mainly middle class phenomena because they are the only people that can afford cars. The drive ins not only give car owners a chance to see a movie it also gives them a chance to show off their car and spend time with it.

The majority of the old state-owned cinemas are dirty, rundown, dilapidated and empty: unheated in the winter and stuffy and hot in the summer. Many have been torn down. Describing one theater in Beijing in the early 2010s, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As soon as you walk in the door your senses are hit by the auditorium’s damp, smelly air that evokes a warehouse. Many of the seats have holes in the upholstery, food stains or are broken outright. The speakers rattle when the soundtrack hits the high notes. And the doors don’t shut properly, creating streams of light after the feature starts.” It is no surprise that people prefer watching pirated DVDs in the comfort of their homes.

As of 2006, there were only 1,118 (2,400) movie theaters in China for a population of 1.3 billion people. By contrast the United States has 36,000 movie theaters for about 300 million people. Chinese say the they don’t go the movie theater because the ticket price are too high. Tickets at some theaters are as high as $7, a full week’s salary for many workers. In an effort to attract more customer some theater have significantly lowered their ticket prices.

China had 4,700 screens, including 1,800 digital and 800 3-D screens, as of 2009. In 1995, there were about 3,100 theaters and 180,000 factory movie halls and outdoor theaters. Moviegoers often sat on wooden benches and watched the film on canvas stretched on the top of a truck. Ticket prices ranged from 75 cents to $2.00 and average around a $1.00. By one estimated that Chinese on average spend only 12 cents a year going to movie theaters.

Zhang Xianmin of wrote in 2009: “Most domestic giants are tightly integrated with the reals state industry. Most noticeable is Wanda’s general success. They manage to cover almost all the new development zones which didn’t exist in the formal cultural map of China. In big cities, these development zones have hundreds of thousands people. Moreover, the residents are mainly young, white-collars, (Blue-collars don’t buy houses. Mid-age white-collars tend to choose better developed neighborhood, and they don’t go to cinema). The payback period for new theaters is about three years, hardware deprecation is about 7 to 8 years, real estate contracts last about 10 years in general. The scarcity of programming, in my own anticipation, will result a considerable percentage of empty seats in new cinemas in three years. This percentage will reach an unacceptable peak in five or six years, and the development will start to reverse, such as converting cinemas into billiard halls. Art cinema has to deal with the reality of the high rate of empty cinema seats. Some cinemas will have to depend on blockbusters to make money, others will rely on cultural activities and artworks to survive.
[Source: Zhang Xianmin,, 2009]

Bringing Movie Theaters to the Masses in China

Reporting from Shengzhou, a bustling city in central Zhejiang province with about 800,000 people, David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Not long ago when Zhang Guomiao wanted to see a film, he'd head for the village square. There, itinerant cinema operators would unfurl a canvas screen, set up some static-filled speakers and show a grainy movie in the open air. "We had to bring our own stools if we wanted to sit," said Zhang, 47, who remembered chickens clucking by his feet and neighbors talking loudly. "You couldn't hear much of the movie."These days he visits a new seven-screen multiplex outfitted with plush seating, 3-D screens and popcorn imported from the U.S. The rice farmer went with friends to see the best-picture Academy Award nominee "Inception," marveling at the science-fiction thriller's special effects, throbbing soundtrack — and the clean cinema floors. "The movie was very hard to understand, but the cinema was very comfortable," Zhang said. "As a farmer, I thought it was very luxurious." [Source: David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2011]

Across China, millions of people like Zhang are experiencing modern cinemas for the first time. State-of-the-art theaters are replacing dilapidated movie houses not only in wealthy urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai but in outposts like Shengzhou Between 2007 and 2011, the number of screens in China doubled to more than 6,200. The cinema-building binge is powered in part by ideology. The Communist government is a major investor in film production, distribution and movie houses. Film is a way to strengthen state influence at home and export Chinese culture abroad. Movies are "part of a country's soft power," said Han Sanping, the head of state-owned China Film Group. Still, the main drivers are practical. Unlike in the U.S., where DVD sales can account for as much as 40 percent of a film's revenue, rampant piracy has forced studios here to depend almost exclusively on domestic box-office receipts. Bankrolling more pictures and boosting profits requires more screens.

Then there's boredom. As Chinese workers grow richer and have more leisure time, they're itching for something to do. The typical ticket costs about $5, slightly less than what many new college graduates earn per day. Still, Chinese movie fans have shown a willingness to pay a premium for better sound, a better picture and swanky venues to hang out with friends. There really wasn't much to do here" before the multiplex opened in Shengzhou, said Wang Jinjin, a 24-year-old employee at a local pharmaceutical company. Wang, who earns about $400 a month, said he's visited the theater three times within a few weeks, treating his girlfriend to a ticket, popcorn and bottled water each time. He particularly liked the special effects in Sony Pictures' horror sequel "Resident Evil: Afterlife."

In Shengzhou, a former agricultural center turned manufacturing hub, local authorities determined that the city was ripe for a modern multiplex. Aside from evening strolls, karaoke and card games, there wasn't much for workers to do in the city known as China's necktie capital. So in 2009, Zhejiang Film Co., which is owned by the provincial government, turned to Pan Xiaming, one of its young managers, to secure a location and oversee construction. The son of tea and sugar-cane farmers, Pan, 28, started at China's fifth-largest cinema chain as a projectionist. The Shengzhou native is so passionate about film that he once traveled 80 miles to the tourist city of Hangzhou to watch "Avatar" in 3-D. "The whole time I was in the theater, I kept imagining how great it would be to have this in my hometown," Pan said.

Situated in a busy shopping mall, near the city's most expensive town houses, Pan's cineplex — Shengzhou Time Movie World — was an instant success. Pictures including Disney-Pixar's "Toy Story 3" and "Aftershock" played to sold-out crowds on weekends after it opened in the summer. "It's much better than watching movies off the Internet," said Wang Jiayi, a sporting-goods store clerk who has visited the cinema six times. "You can't feel it off a computer screen." Pan met one family who watched three different movies in a single day. "Many people were having their first experience in a cinema," said Pan, whose sober black suits can't disguise his boyish features. "A lot of our customers were in their 50s or older and haven't seen a movie on a big screen in 10 or 20 years. They realized things have changed a lot."

At first glance, Shengzhou Time Movie World could pass for any cineplex in a U.S. suburb. The familiar aroma of buttery popcorn wafts through a carpeted lobby. Movie times are displayed on a large digital screen above ticket clerks in Pepto-Bismol-colored uniforms. Theater seats feature cup holders for jumbo-sized servings of soda. But alongside the Dove chocolate, Lay's potato chips and Haagen-Dazs ice-cream bars at the concession counter are packs of dried prunes, squid and smelt. Ushers have to remind some patrons to stub out their cigarettes in the smoke-free facility. At an early-evening screening of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the differences between the Chinese and American moviegoing experiences were clear. Viewers talked through the entire film, reading subtitles and gleefully sounding out the English dialogue whenever they could. "Ah, I get it now, they all have magic," said one woman to her companion in an excited voice, some oversharing that carried to the other 50 patrons. Cellphones rang incessantly. One woman answered her iPhone six times. Someone in the back hocked spit. Not once did anyone complain. "After all," Pan said, "it's still a village."

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
and his take on going to the movies

China Overtakes U.S. in the Number of Movie Screens, But Many Are Empty

China is the world leader in terms of the number of movie screens (some theater have one screen; other like multiplexes have several). The number of cinema screens in China increased almost 20 fold since between 2007 and 2020 according to Statista. There were 3,527 screens in 2007 and 75,581 screens in 2020. As of June 2017, China had 45,000 screens, with around 19 opening every day.

In 2017, China surpassed the U.S. in the number of movie screens. But many theaters were empty. Reporting from Zhuolu Town outside Beijing, Louise Watt of Associated Press wrote: The brightly-decorated 3-D cinema in this town is showing the latest Chinese and Hollywood films, to row after row of empty red seats. So few people come to watch films here that the theater manager rents out the halls to travelling sales companies or music teachers. China has overtaken the U.S. in terms of the number of its cinema screens, becoming the world’s biggest movie market by that measure. But away from the bigger cities you wouldn’t know it.[Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, January 13, 2017]

“In this theater in a county seat near Beijing, the ticket-seller sitting behind the counter with nothing to do and a ticket-collector lying down watching films on his phone are signs something’s amiss with China’s non-stop building of cinemas. Industry analysts foresee only more and more screens. But Zhuolu’s residents are typical of Chinese who are not in the habit of movie-going, preferring to watch films online for free. “We don’t have many customers — only a couple on weekdays and a few dozen during the weekends,” said Wang Xudong, the manager of Zhuolu County Digital Cinema, which has three screens and 400 seats for a county of 350,000 people. “Sometimes we rent the halls out for meetings to earn some money and then we can only break even,” said Wang, who also provides drum kits for cinema hall lessons for amateur musicians. Companies sometimes rent the halls for promotions of products such as health supplements and water dispensers.

“China had fewer than 20,000 cinema screens in 2013, but it has now surpassed the U.S., which had 40,759 indoor and drive-in screens as of July, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Theatre Owners. As of December 20, 2016 China had 40,917 screens, according to the national film bureau. As the most populous country, at 1.4 billion, China’s cinema market still has plenty of room to grow as theater chains expand into smaller cities and rural areas. There are just 23 screens per million Chinese, compared to 125 per million in the U.S., according to IHS Markit, a London-based market researcher. Analyst David Hancock estimates China’s screen density ratio will grow to about 57 screens per million over the next five to 10 years. “The country is still under-screened, and there seems to be little reason to stop building screens where there are none,” Hancock said.

“China’s countryside had around 3,000 cinemas in 2016, out of 7,000 in the whole country, said Fu Yalong, research director at leading entertainment consultancy EntGroup. “It takes time to foster the habit among people of going to the cinema,” he said. “This is still a market with potential for development.” Beijing, with 22 million people, added more than 100 cinemas in 2016, up from about 70 in 2015.

Limits on the Growth of the Movie Industry in China

Louise Watt of Associated Press wrote: “For decades after the Communist Party took power in 1949, state-owned cinemas showed propaganda films starring peasants and soldiers. Even after economic reforms began in the 1980s-90s, cinemas charged as little as 2 mao (3 cents) for showings of both foreign and domestic films. As China’s economy became more market-oriented, state-operated theaters closed and people lost the cinema-going habit. Companies like real estate conglomerate Wanda Group, which owns the American AMC movie theater company, have led a private cinema chain revolution in large cities.[Source: Louise Watt, Associated Press, January 13, 2017]

“The cinema in Zhuolu, an apple and grape-growing area 160 kilometers (100 miles) away from Beijing, opened in 2014. It’s surrounded by shops, banks and restaurants operating underneath apartment blocks. On a recent weekday afternoon, a couple bought two 35-yuan ($5) tickets to watch the Hollywood film “Hacksaw Ridge” and had the whole theater to themselves. That’s equivalent to about the cheapest cinema ticket for sale in Beijing.

“The new cinema in Zhuolu opened its doors two years ago, more than a decade after the old state-run one was torn down. Once an avid movie-goer, 66-year-old farmer Zhao Youling has never visited the new cinema just 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) away from his village. “It isn’t that the ticket is too expensive, it is that I am too poor,” Zhao said. “I always stay at home and watch TV because it is free,” Zhao said. “I was a movie fan 30 years ago and as far as I can remember I could afford to watch a film almost every week and I loved to watch films featuring the lives of farmers or stories in the countryside.”

“Scant as they are, the Zhuolu cinema’s audiences have been growing, says Wang, who contracts the space from the county government’s cultural bureau and keeps it open daily, from 8:30 to midnight. “We have to offer screenings and be ready because we don’t know when there will be an audience,” he said. “We have to be open all day — we can’t let people see a locked door.”

Strength of Foreign Films in China

Chinese box office takings surged 64 percent to $1.5 billion in 2010, with 44 percent of that going to American films. Chinese box office revenues surged 44 percent to $908 million in 2009 according to the state-run China Film Group. Top grossing films in China in 2011 (in US$) were: 1) Avatar; 2) Transformers: Dark of the Moon; 3) Let the Bullets Fly (local); 4) Aftershock (local); 5) Kung Fu Panda 2; 6) Inception; 7) Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf 2 (local); 8) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; 9) If You Are the One 2 (local); 10) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Tian Jin, party secretary of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. said at the 18th party Congress in November 2012 that from January to October 2012, box office revenues amounted to $2.1 billion. Chinese films, however, lost their dominance in their home market, accounting for 41.4 percent of this gross. But Mr. Tian refused to blame the influx of foreign films, saying Chinese films needed to improve.Chinese films accounted for 56 percent of the take in 2009. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 11, 2012]

“The immediate reason is the strong attack by the imported movies,” Tian Jin said. “But the basic reason is that our competitiveness needs to increase.” Mr. Tian also said that foreign films were not banned from Chinese theaters during national holidays when the theaters are often crowded, a claim often made by importers. He said that foreign distributors “voluntarily” decided not to show their products during this time “out of consideration” for local sensibilities. Chinese films, Mr. Tian said, have done less well abroad. In 2011, 55 Chinese films were distributed in 22 countries, grossing about $318 million.

In 2014, 'Transformers: Age of Extinction” became the No. 1 film of all time in China in a little over a week. Clifford Coonan wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “After only 10 days in release, Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction has become the top-grossing movie of all time in China with $222.7 million in ticket sales, eclipsing the $221.9 million grossed by James Cameron's Avatar. The 3D tentpole achieved the milestone over the weekend.” [Source:Clifford Coonan, Hollywood Reporter, July 7, 2014]

“Transformers: Age of Extinction registered 338,793 screenings with 17.72 million admissions after 10 days to become the top-grossing movie in history at the Chinese box office, not accounting for inflation and currency translation, according to data for the week to June 6 from research group Entgroup. The movie’s success was lifted by the inclusion of popular actress Li Bingbing and heartthrob Han Geng, and lashings of product placement for everything from Chinese milk and PCs to Red Bull and authoritarian styles of government.

The other top ten movies at time were: 2) “The Breakup Guru” (local); 3) Maleficent; 4) Bunshinsaba (Chinese-Korean co-production); 5) American Hustle; 6) Godzilla; 7) A Noble Spirit; 8) “Grace of Monaco”, which was launched by Nicole Kidman at the Shanghai International Film Festival; and 9) Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow.

“The Da Vinci Code” was very popular when it opened in May 2006. Then after about two weeks, the Beijing government ordered cinemas theaters to stop showing it. The BBC reported: “Officials in the country said the move was to make way for local Chinese films to be shown during the peak summer viewing period. But others say the ban may have been implemented because of the religious content of the film. A few months earlier Beijing also banned Memoirs of a Geisha and Brokeback Mountain. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2006]

Chinese-Made Films Become more Successful

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Dog and Beauty, 1930
The low-budget Chinese comedy “Lost in Thailand” unexpectedly became China’s biggest-ever box office hit in 2012. Robert Cain, a producer who has worked in China for 25 years, told AFP that it was among successful domestic movies that “drew large audiences in China because they released at times when Hollywood movies were blocked out of Chinese theatres.” [Source: Sebastien Blanc, Agence France-Presse, January 18, 2013]

China’s box office soared by more than 48 per cent in 2015, mainly driven by home-made films. Li Jingjing wrote in the Global Times: In "2015 mainland films seem to have experienced a huge uptick in quality, both in terms of story and production value. This change was widely welcomed by Chinese audiences thirsty for some quality "homemade" films, leading to several new box office records being set this year. In fact there were several Chinese films that actually beat out several heavy weight foreign films as the top earning films of the year, even though films like Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World came to China this year. “That happened for a reason and proves that the Chinese film industry is becoming a force to be reckoned with.[Source: Li Jingjing Source:Global Times, January 5, 2016]

Acclaimed Art House movies in 2015 included: “The Dead End” directed by Cao Baoping “Deep in the Heart” directed by Qi Yukun and “Saving Mr. Wu” directed by Ding Sheng. The most popular blockbusters were “Monster Hunt” directed by Raman Hui, “Monkey King: Hero is Back” directed by Tian Xiaopeng and “Mojin - The Lost Legend” directed by Wuershan. Hong Kong-based filmmaker Stephen Chow's sci-fi fantasy "The Mermaid" was China's box-office champion in 2016, grossing US$527 million. [Source: Sun Shaoyi's Film Review Blog, January 5, 2016]

Monster Hunt, a Chinese-Hong Kong fantasy action comedy film was the No. 2 movie in China in 2015 but ticket fraud allegations tainted its success. According to Chinese Film Insider: “Monster Hunt’s box office glory was tarnished by allegations of questionable ticketing practices aimed at maximizing the appearance of sales. Producer Edko Films acknowledged giving away millions worth of tickets towards the end of Monster Hunt’s theatrical run for “public welfare,” while theaters reportedly scheduled screenings every 15 minutes around the clock to “sold out” audiences. In a similar case, the heads of China’s top private studios complained publicly of shady practices that gave a state-backed military film the edge over Hollywood import Terminator Genisys. [Source: Jonathan Landreth, Sky Canaves, Pang-chieh Ho, and Jonathan Papish, China Film Insider, December 31, 2015; Mandy Zuo South China Morning Post, June 12, 2016]

Ying Zhu wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “The business of filmmaking is indeed booming in China, but not necessarily the artistry of Chinese cinema, which pertains to the innovative and imaginative form of storytelling that can yield memorable films of cross-cultural appeal and recognition. Recent Chinese cinematic fast food with the likes of Guo Jingming’s Tiny Times franchise and Monster Hunt are hardly masterpieces in the caliber of first-class world cinema. In comparison to the exhilarating outburst of waves of new cinema of the 1980s, Chinese cinema in the 2010s has yielded few memorable pictures of genuine delight. [Source:Ying Zhu, Los Angeles Review of Books, December 30, 2015. “Ying Zhu is a professor of cinema studies at the City University of New York and author of Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television]

Chinese-made films became stronger in the late 2010s and early 2020s. Local films accounted for 85 percent of China's box office in 2020, according to the research firm Ampere Analysis, compared to 60 percent in 2018 and 50 percent in 2016."There are Chinese blockbusters that Chinese filmmakers are making that people want to watch, and they feel less derivative than those made in Hollywood," said Aynne Kokas, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and the author of the book "Hollywood Made in China." Chinese-made “The Battle At Lake Changjin” was the top film of globally in 2021. In 2021, the James Bond movie "No Time to Die", "F9" and "Godzilla vs. Kong" did well in China but not as well as Chinese blockbusters like "Hi, Mom" and "Detective Chinatown 3", which raked in $200 million and $400 million, respectively. As of mid-November 2021, China box office market had passed $6.7 billion for 2021, more than the U.S. Hollywood had been kept somewhat on the sidelines in 2021 year with Marvel movies notably absent.

Film Business in China

Top Chinese film companies make most of their money from film production and distribution. By contrast, global giants such as Disney and Universal make a large share of their revenue through theme parks, royalties, licensing, and media networks. Only about 15 percent of Disney’s revenue comes from movie-making.

China's film industry Hollywood and Bollywood are the three biggest film industries in the world in terms of films produced and box office revenues. In the late 2000s there were 16 major studios and 32 distribution companies in China. At that time about 150 to 350 films were made in China each year, with an average cost of $300,000. Most popular films produced in China were dramas and slapstick comedies. The movie market was still very small in China. A film that earned $15 million is considered a hit. In the 1990s and 2000s, studios suffered as a result of rising costs and declining attendance. Hardly any films reached a large market or made any money. Prints of all Chinese films were owned by the studios, which were concerned most about fulfilling their yearly quota of films and had little interest in getting the films to an audience. The studios had little or no money for marketing or promotion.

Stanley Rose a professor at the University of Southern California who is studying Chinese film, wrote in Foreign Policy, the Chinese system “pursue multiple yet contradictory goals...The state administers production targets and film licensing while the market determines production investment and film promotion. Thus, the state intervenes to ensure that politically correct films are made and distributed but resulting products must fend for themselves in a market concerned only with commercial viability.”

Zhang Xianmin, Professor of Beijing Film Academy, writes: "China’s box office revenue generated by domestically produced films has increased rapidly in recent years. However, the money has come from a limited number of blockbusters which gave no respect whatsoever towards our traditional cultural values. The government is in favor of high movie ticket prices; it is making our film industry into a capital-intensive industry. If a director tries to make a film, he or she will only get the script approved if the film can help the relevant gatekeepers either get rich or get promoted. These gatekeepers don’t care about the film industry. Their children study overseas, and their only wish is to wait until they have the money to emigrate. Ironically, they deem China not a good place for their children because of its bad culture. [Source: Zhang Xianmin, translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai, dGenerate films, September 29, 2010]

A wide variety of films are available in China through streaming services like Youku and Sohu. The presence of new formats and large production companies with their own streaming platforms, like Tencent Pictures and Baidu-backed iQIYI) have shaken up the cinematic landscape in China and changed it dramatically in recent years. At the same time the Chinese government still pushes its patriotic blockbuster films and maintains strict but often difficult-to ascertain censorship rules that create obstacles for directors to navigate if they want to get their films into theaters. [Source: Radii]

In January 2020, “Lost in Russia”, a Chinese comedy film, decided to forgo the theaters because of the coronavirus and went straight to streaming, a trend that is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. . It was the first Chinese film slated for theatrical release do this to take refuge online“Lost in Russia” was sold to ByteDance for about $93 million and released on Douyin (China’s version of TikTok) for audiences to watch for free. “Lost in Russia” was played 600 million times and watched by 180 million people. ByteDance made money from advertising and new subscribers to its services but its hard to imagine in recouped its $93 million. [Source: Inkstone, September 24, 2020]

Film Companies in China

Chinese film companies have grown considerably thanks to Chinese people’s rising spending power and interest in going out to the movies. The 10 largest film companies in China. Had a combined worth of$28.6 billion in 2020: They are very strong in China but outside it they are dwarfed by global giants like Disney, which has an estimated value of $226.6 billion, and Warner Brothers. Enlight Media, the most valuable Chinese film company in 2020, earned about $2 billion in the domestic box office in 2019, making up about 20 percent of the total Chinese box office for the year. It own Beijing Enlight Media and is also involved in television. That number was driven by the animated film Ne Zha, which made over $700 million in 2019. [Source: Inkstone, September 24, 2020]

Leading film production companies in China in 2020, by box office revenues. 1) Bona Film: $2.19 billion, the makers of "Lake Changlin"; 2) Beijing Enlight Media: $1.22 billion; 3) Huaxia Film Distribution: $1.16 billion; 4) Chunqia Shidai: $998 million; 5) China Film Group: 876 million; 6) Huayi Brothers: $704 million; and 7) Shanghai Film Group: $238 million.

China Film Group Corporation (CFGC), is the largest, most influential state-owned film enterprise in China. According to Forbes, it is a state monopoly that all imported films have to work with. It also runs theaters and finances, produces, and distributes films.[ In 2014, the company was the largest film distributor in China, with 32.8 percent of the market. In the early 2010s, a long with a smaller firm in which it held a 12 percent stake, CFG controlled more than half of all domestic film distribution in China. The two firms also distribute all foreign films that China allowed in.

According to the Economist: CFG spins tales of love, disaster, war and kung fu, of course. But the easy money is in patriotic pap. In recent years, the firm has produced “Nanking! Nanking!” (about heroic Chinese resistance to Japan during the second world war) and “The Founding of a Republic” (about the Communist takeover in 1949). Such films are profitable partly because their stars do not expect to be paid much, if anything. About 100 famous actors worked for nothing on “The Founding of a Republic”. An even more impressive 172 stars with Chinese ties signed on for “The Beginning of the Great Revival”, for compensation that, according to the director, amounted to less than the cost of lunch boxes for the crew. “The Founding of a Republic” cost 30 million yuan ($4.6m) to make and brought in a tidy 420 million yuan. “The Beginning of the Great Revival” cost 80 million yuan, but has been a bit of a disappointment at the box office, having brought in only 340 million yuan so far. Still, that is a return that would thrill any investor in Hollywood. [Source: The Economist July 14, 2011]

Film Financing and Investors in China

20111107-Wiki C Film The_Life_of_Wu_Xun.jpg
The Life of Wu Xun
The influx of money into the Chinese market has made finding financing for films easier, some directors say. In the 2000s, about half the funding for new films came from private sources. But coming up with financing can be a problem. One director who made a film for $120,000 told the Los Angeles Times, “We got a lot of the funding from personal contacts we essentially had to lie to. If they really knew how risky this is, they’d never invest. Two of the top three private film investment companies have military ties.

Investors for the relatively low-budget film “A Touch of Sin”, by independent filmmaker Jia Zhangke included Shanghai Film Group and Shanxi Film & Television Group from China and Office Kitano from Japan.. On financing for his films, Jia said: “Starting from 2004, it’s been mostly domestic and foreign money combined. Sometimes there is Japan or France or South Korea.” Commercialization has had “ a big influence. On one hand, you’re faced with the continuing decline in the average age of filmgoers. This year, in China, the average age of moviegoers was 21, and it continues to drop. So the market is starting to make movies aimed at this younger age group. “At the same time, the cinema system in China is not very sophisticated. The biggest impact has been on independent films or art-house films. There’s less and less room for these films in theaters.[Source: Interview with Edward Wong, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, October 18 and 21 2013]

Describing the evolution of investing in film in China, film professor Zhang Xianmin wrote in 2009: “Private investment in film production can also be roughly divided into three steps. The first step was the participation of local brands or enterprises through advertising, such as water pipe commercials for gunfighting films, Hainan real estate investment commercials for art films set on the beach. This also marked the beginning of the collapse of the big studio system. The phase when private investors insisted on their status as the exclusive copyright owner of films ended in 1995. Nowadays, no one does that any more except for the purpose of promoting an actress, and these kind of investors typically retire after their first film.” [Source: Zhang Xianmin,, 2009]

“The second step is seeking cooperation. Everyone, including CEPA, is talking about overseas financing. The prevalence of overseas capital and money-laundering means that capital will follow abroad before it circles back. This kind of investor normally makes two to four films. The first one might be a small production, just to see how deep the water is. Once they get enough investment to test the water, they’ll cautiously assess the chance of losing money. This phase is still going on. This is a process of transforming hot money into calm decisions.”

“The third step appears to be the combination of Confucian merchants and MBAs. Financial experts rich in cultural capital enjoy great popularity these days. Although counterfeit experts are unavoidable, there are also real MBAs, or PhDs from the States, or intellectuals from the 80s. These people intend to work in the industry for ten years or half of their life, and aim to accumulate as least twenty, or even fifty film titles with their name listed as partial copyright owners. Many people, including those investors who were cheated through money laundering, start to consider film as something that can make them a shareholder. Meanwhile, financial and private investors are interested in investing in several major film companies, comparable to buying shares at a high price.”

China Film Insider reported in 2015: “China’s big three tech companies — Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (collectively known as BAT) — are all investing heavily in content and have established film studios. Their ambitions go beyond making movies, however, as they aim to merge content production with a range of business lines that include ticketing, merchandise sales, gaming, social media, and online video streaming. Other deep-pocketed newcomers shaking up the industry include the property-focused Dalian Wanda Group and consumer electronics maker LeTV. [Source: Jonathan Landreth, Sky Canaves, Pang-chieh Ho, and Jonathan Papish, China Film Insider, December 31, 2015]

Film Distribution and Marketing in China

One of the most profitable branches of the Chinese film industry is distribution. Of the money taken in the cinemas, as of the late 2000s, 50 percent went to theater owner, 25 percent went to the film studio and 25 percent went to the distributor (it used be 30 percent for the distributor and 20 percent for the studio). One angry studio owner told Reuters he told his distributor, "We spend the money to make the movies, we take all the investment risk, while you do nothing. You make profits on the basis of almost no costs."

There were 32 distribution companies in China in the late 2000s. Distributors often work together with studios and theater chains and increasing are becoming interested in making money. Films must obtain a new permit each time they travel. This money goes to the distributors, who are often slow to grant permits until they receive enough in bribes. An a few occasions, film makers have stole their own films from studios so they could be shown in foreign film festivals.

A standard American blockbuster takes up about one-fifth of domestic screens when it is first released. But in China, an American blockbuster takes up three-fifths of theater screens; some domestic blockbusters can take up four-fifths. Acclaimed director Zhang Yimou told NPR he thinks the rise of the mainland China cinema market is prompting Chinese directors to change their focus. He is no exception. Ten years ago, his films relied on the international market; some critics even sneered that his main audience were international film festival judges.[Source: National Public Radio, January 4, 2010] Now, Zhang believes a Chinese film can earn domestic revenues that are 10 times what it makes overseas. His argument is that by being commercial, he is doing battle with Hollywood for the soul of Chinese cinema.

“Young people are the key,” Zhang told NPR, “If they lose their interest in domestic movies, we will be in big trouble. Then China's film market will be occupied by foreigners. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea are examples of this. The mainland is our last battleground. So in this case, it's not shameful to shoot commercial or funny movies,” he says.

Film Pirating in China

In 2007, it was estimated that 93 percent of the movies sold in China were pirated. Pirated DVDs, VCDs, (video compact discs, cheaper, low-tech versions of DVDs) and videos were widely available on the streets in China. The film industries in China, Hong Kong and Hollywood all lost billions to the pirating of films on videos, DVDs and VCDs that cost only a few cents to make and were sold for around $1 a piece all over China in markets, on street corners and subway station and in the backrooms of legitimate DVD and video stores. Stalls at Silk Street Market in Beijing displayed licensed DVDs with holograms and everything but when buyers purchase one they were given a pirated copy.

Pirated VCDs showed up large numbers in 1995. They robbed the Hong Kong film industry of 40 percent of its business, and forcing video shops and theaters to close down. Pirating costs the world film industry about $3 billion a year in lost sales in the 1990s. The biggest losers were Chinese filmmakers and distributors. The six major Hollywood studios lost around $250 million a year. Competition was very fierce among vendors which was why prices were so low. In 2005, DVDs of recent films could be purchased for as little 60 cents a piece.Pirated films were often versions that were shown outside China and thus were uncensored. Many of the foreign films sold by pirates were never even shown at neighborhood cinemas and those that were had scenes deleted from them. Newly released theater films have to make big money on the opening days because soon after that the film was widely available in pirated version.

The latest Hollywood films often appeared on the streets as pirated DVDs before the films opened in theaters or soon afterwards. Pirated versions of the new “Star Wars” movies were available on pirated DVDs only days after they premiered at theaters in Beijing. In some places piracy was so rampant that even the pirates worried about their merchandise being copied. The selection of pirated material was amazing. Shops in Chinese cities often have a full catalog of classic films like old Hitchcocks, Truffauts and Hepburn-Tracy films as well as recent Hollywood releases. .

Some pirated DVDs were filmed with hand-held videos in American movie theaters on opening day, then taken to Asia by plane, copied on clandestine CD printing machines, and released on the streets within a few days. Others were made from high-quality screeners, advance copies given out members of the film academy and critics. In many cases the first copies to hit the streets were made with hand-held camcorders in theaters. Better quality ones showed up weeks later. DVDs were often pirated using copies that were available on the Internet.

For some time viewers have not bothered with DVDs' they simply share digital files for free on the Internet. Many get them from the popular Chinese movie website Mtime. Hollywood finds Beijing policy particularly unfair because it fails to crackdown on the pirated DVD trade at the same time it restricts the import of movies, DVDs and music. Pirating and copying is so extensive that movie-makers can largely only make money from theater ticket sales and not from television or streaming. The quality of pirated movies has improved over the years. Sometimes customers prefered the pirated copies to the real thing because they have not been censored by the government and were available much sooner because distributors have not had deal with government red tape. The selection at illegal shop and sites has often been much better than at legal ones.

Image Sources: Wiki Commons, University of Washington; Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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