China Box Office Remains Sluggish in 2017, Despite Big Hollywood Gains

Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Universal's 'Fate of the Furious' is China's biggest film of 2017 so far

The market expanded just 3.7 percent in the first half of the year, with imported movies claiming 61 percent of revenue — the widest margin in five years.

Anemic growth remains the worrying trend at the once booming Chinese box office.

In the first half of 2017, movie ticket revenue in China rose just 3.7 percent, totaling 25.5 billion yuan ($3.8 billion) compared to 24.6 billion yuan over the same period last year, according to Beijing-based research firm Ent Group. The sluggish start to the year is consistent with China's shock correction in 2016, when full-year box-office growth plummeted to just under 4 percent after expanding by a yearly average of 35 percent for half a decade.

Reflecting the downbeat data, PriceWaterhouseCoopers recently revised its forecast for China's ascendance over North America as the world's largest movie market, pushing back the date to 2021 from 2017.

The news for U.S. studio execs was much rosier, however, as Hollywood's Chinese earnings in the first half of 2017 were in line with former boom times. Revenue from imported movies climbed 34.5 percent, hitting 15.6 billion yuan ($2.3 billion) from January to June, compared to 11.6 billion yuan in the first half of last year.

The gains by overseas film companies matched an influx of foreign-made product. Working to ward off an embarrassing overall decline, Chinese regulators eased restrictions on Hollywood imports in the first half, allowing 57 foreign films to be released during the period — 14 more than last year.

International movies claimed 61 percent of ticket sales in China in the first half, by far the biggest margin since 2012. Last year, foreign titles took just 47 percent.

The biggest drag on growth, indeed, was the conspicuous absence of Chinese hits. The biggest local title of the year so far was Jackie Chan's Kung Fu Yoga, which earned just shy of 1.8 billion yuan ($255 million at the time of release) over Chinese New Year in January — a sizable haul for sure, but a far cry from Stephen Chow's The Mermaid, which took an astonishing 3.4 billion yuan last year ($528 million at 2016 exchange rates). The second quarter was especially bereft of successful local movies — among the 10 best-selling films in the quarter, only two were made in China.

Among the many high-performing imported movies, 2017's three biggest thus far are: Universal's The Fate of the Furious ($388 million), Aamir Khan's surprise Bollywood smash hit Dangal ($190 million), and Transformers: The Last Knight ($206 million and counting).

China's state media have tried to put a more optimistic gloss on the H1 results. Since the start of 2017, regulators began counting the service fees charged by online ticketing platforms as box-office revenue. Regulators say including the fees more accurately reflects consumer spending on moviegoing, since over 80 percent of all tickets are now bought online through such services. Many analysts, meanwhile, have argued that the inclusion is a blatant attempt to juice the numbers during a downturn, and that ticketing service fees aren't an appropriate piece of box office, since the various stakeholders in a film's success — producers, distributors, cinemas — do not share in this revenue.

Using the enhanced numbers, Chinese state news agency Xinhua said Monday that the nation's box office had "already seen a year-on-year growth of 10.5 percent in the first half of 2017." 

comments powered by Disqus