A Year of Relief for Filmmakers, Theaters — Will It Last?
Film enthusiast Li Bingqian went to the movie theaters around 10 times last year. In the first year after movie theaters reopened to the public, many people were excited to return to in-person entertainment, she tells Sixth Tone.
Li was one of an estimated 503 million moviegoers in China in 2023, according to film market database Beacon. They contributed to 54.9 billion yuan ($7.72 billion) in box office sales in the world’s second largest film market in 2023, up 82.6% from 2022 and around 85% of that in 2019, the China Film Administration announced Monday.
The recovery came on the back of several measures introduced by authorities to support the industry after a tough few years, including tax breaks for movie theaters nationwide and relaxation of screening arrangements to allow more films to be released in specific areas of the country.
Li, 25, still falls in the bulk of China’s moviegoers, but there are signs of change. According to Beacon, those aged below 29 years old accounted for 52.2% of moviegoers as of Oct. 17, but the proportion aged above 35 has increased from 20.4% in 2019 to 29% in 2023.
Going to the movie theater is once again a popular choice. Seventy-seven films were released in the festive hesui period in the run-up to the New Year from Nov. 24 to Dec. 31 — the most since 2020. These included “Endless Journey,” which tells the story of a vigilante detective who hunts down criminals, and became the second highest performing film in the world in the weekend after its release on Dec. 15.
These domestic films have largely driven the recovery of China’s film industry, while imported films have struggled. Industry insiders tell Sixth Tone that Chinese audience tastes are changing, favoring domestic films’ more effective promotional methods and plots.
According to Beacon, 620 films were released in 2023, nine more than in 2019, of which over 84% were domestic. Six of these grossed over 2 billion yuan, including “Full River Red,” the top grossing film in China last year which made 4.5 billion yuan at the box office.
All the top 10 grossing films in 2023 were domestic films — the second time in recent years that this has happened. This marks the continued shifting away of Chinese audiences from imported films in recent years.
Imported films accounted for just 17.4% of box office sales in 2023, the lowest since 2014. The figure was 37.9% in 2019, according to Beacon.
Major domestic film companies hit hard during the pandemic, including Wanda Film, China Film, Omnijoi, and HG Entertainment, saw year-on-year net profit increases of over 100% in the third quarter of the year.
The slump happened even though authorities did not bar imported films from being screened, referred to locally as a “domestic film protection period,” during last year’s peak summer season. According to Beacon, the number of imported films in 2023 increased from 59 in 2022 to 89 in 2023, bringing the number closer to pre-2020 levels.
“If we compare with previous years, the overall performance of imported films in 2023 was not what was expected,” Zhang Tong, chief analyst at domestic ticketing platform Maoyan, tells Sixth Tone.
While all 10 highest grossing domestic films made over 1 billion yuan, neither the 10th installment of the iconic Fast & Furious franchise, the highest grossing imported film in China last year, nor the seventh installment of Mission Impossible broke the 1 billion yuan mark.
The continued prominence of long-established movie franchises such as Mission Impossible and Fast & Furious among imported films is partly to blame for imported films’ decline in popularity among Chinese moviegoers, says Wang Xinrui, a 29-year-old independent film director.
Wang describes Hollywood as “frying cold rice” in recent years, a Chinese saying which means repeating the tried and tested instead of offering anything new.
Zhang agrees, and highlights the emergence of increasingly impressive domestic films as contributing to the waning of interest in imported films. While in the past, Chinese moviegoers were attracted to the advanced special effects and complex storytelling of imported films, domestic films have improved on both these fronts.
Notable releases last year praised for their special effects include “Wandering Earth 2,” the much-anticipated sequel to the 2019 sci-fi blockbuster, and “Creation of the Gods,” a mythological epic based on a Ming dynasty novel.
Chinese fans are also looking for films that they can more easily relate to, Zhang says. For example, the hit film “No More Bets” delved into issues of cyber fraud, while animated film “Chang An” struck a chord with both the old and young through renditions of Tang dynasty poems familiar to most Chinese.
“Many blockbusters imported to China have relatively minor implications for real life, especially for social issues in China, which detaches them from Chinese people’s emotions,” Yang Xiaolin, the director of the Film Research Institute of Tongji University, tells Sixth Tone.
Plotlines aside, imported films are also failing to keep up with the latest promotional strategies in China, says Zhang. In addition to conventional marketing channels, such as microblogging platform Weibo, domestic films are also targeting specific demographics through lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu and short video platforms such as Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
But while domestic films managed to outperform imported films in 2023, the distribution of box office sales across the year raises questions about whether the recovery of the film market is sustainable beyond the top grossing films.
According to Maoyan, the bulk of the box office sales came from the two film viewing peak seasons in the year, Spring Festival and the summer holiday: around 50% of sales in 2023 — a jump from 37% for the same periods in 2019.
In particular, the Spring Festival in late January last year, which was the second biggest Spring Festival for box office sales in Chinese history, came soon after movie theaters reopened to the public.
And while more of the population went to the movie theater at least once last year, the average number of visits fell from 3.25 times in 2019 to 2.42 times last year, according to Beacon. This has raised concerns that the recovery in box office sales is largely temporary, as people’s interest in films is not constant during the year.
Officials have signaled their awareness of the problem, with the deputy head of the National Film Administration, Mao Yu, calling for more “quality films” to be released on weekends to ensure a more comprehensive recovery of the industry.
There are also concerns about the most popular movies increasingly dominating the market, with the 10 top grossing films accounting for more than half of box office sales, according to a report from Tencent Entertainment.
A full recovery of the industry in 2024 will depend on whether people’s excitement for films and the moviegoing experience can be sustained through high-quality offerings, says Maoyan analyst Zhang: “The Chinese audience has higher expectations of content and is becoming more rational over their spending.”
For film director Wang, though the industry is heading in the right direction, he also wants to see better domestic films produced in order to sustain audiences’ interest. “People now value original, creative stories more than famous directors and celebrity stars,” he says, highlighting the fact that more young directors and screenwriters are gaining traction in the industry.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: People watch a film in a cinema in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2023. VCG)