China On Track To Become Second-Largest Film Market By 2015

Chinese Box Office Hit 4.8 Billion Yuan (US$726 Million) In First Six Months Of 2010

Tang Wei and Hyun Bin attend a Gala Presentation of 'Late Autumn' of the Pusan International Film Festival (Image: Xinhua)

Tang Wei and Hyun Bin attend a Gala Presentation of 'Late Autumn' of the Pusan International Film Festival (Image: Xinhua)

This week, the China Film Producers Association (CFPA) announced that the country is on target to become the world’s second-largest film market, trailing only the U.S., within the next five years. In July, Tong Gang of the State Association of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) said that mainland China box office receipts totaled 4.8 billion yuan ($726 million) for the first six months of the year — a rise of 86% over the first half of 2009 — and were well on their way to topping 10 billion yuan for the year. According to researchers at the CFPA, as the result of the development of the Chinese film industry and its distribution networks, and due to the large-scale construction of new theatres in inland areas, by 2015 the Chinese box office should take in between 30-40 billion yuan (US$4.5-6 billion). This would see China leapfrog Japan and India, two very well-developed film markets with popular international followings.

Although much of this is natural, owing to China’s massive population, what makes these figures most intriguing is that China wasn’t even among the top ten world cinema markets as recently as 2008. As the FT points out, the speed at which new theatres are being constructed is an instrumental factor in its stratospheric growth:

China’s staggering growth comes mainly because its cinema audiences have been severely underserved. The country is building new movie theatres at a speed unmatched by any other market. The number of screens is forecast to almost triple from currently 4,500 to 12,000 at the end of 2015.

None of this is terribly surprising. Earlier this year, Jing Daily spoke to the Chinese director Jia Zhangke (part 1, part 2) about the Chinese film industry, and as Jia told us, due to the unbalanced nature of theatre construction in China to date, the country is ripe for a cinema renaissance, led as much by rural as urban construction. Said Jia:

Up to this point, most movie theatres have been concentrated in China’s large, developed cities – for example, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan. These huge cities make up the bulk of box office receipts. But actually, most of the 1.3 billion people in China are distributed throughout villages and small towns. So on the one hand, it’s unbalanced, but on the other hand I see it as an opportunity for the Chinese film industry, because if in the future more theaters are built in more remote areas, it’s going to be really powerful. This is from a development perspective.

So China is on track to become an even bigger film market, both for domestic and international filmmakers, and inland areas are going to get more theatres, which will see the Chinese film industry trail only the U.S. in box office receipts in the next few years. An interesting development, but for China’s film industry to truly be considered “world-class”, Chinese films have to find international audiences. Perhaps more importantly, and somewhat ironically, however, they’ve got to do better among domestic audiences as well. Though box office receipts for “made-in-China” films are improving, the handful of Hollywood blockbusters shown in China annually still dominate, with Avatar eviscerating box office records this year with a 1.3 billion yuan ($195 million) haul.

Part of the reason imported films tend to do better in China is the relatively high cost of movie tickets. As Jia Zhangke told us, tickets can range in price from 50-120 yuan (US$7-17.50), pretty expensive for many in China. Given the choice between a Hollywood blockbuster like Avatar that barrages the senses, and a domestic film that can be found on cheap bootleg DVDs or for free online, most theatergoers will opt for the former.

However, over the past few years Chinese films have made inroads in international markets, domestic ambivalence notwithstanding. Chinese films make up the largest continent at the ongoing Pusan International Film Festival, with Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree” chosen to kick off the festival, and seven Chinese films took part in the Venice International Film Festival this August.

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