China Box Office: Revenue Soars 47 Percent in Normally Quiet January

'Detective Chinatown'
YouTube screengrab

The market share for Hollywood movies, however, slipped to 29 percent for the first month of 2016.

While China's stock markets recently gave economists plenty of cause for concern, the country's movie box office showed no signs of slowing its historic expansion in the first month of 2016.

Box office revenue reached $583.4 million (3.839 billion yuan) in January, usually a relatively slow month for movie-going in the country. The haul represents a 47.2 percent increase over January 2015. The performance is roughly in line with the astonishing 48.7 percent full-year growth rate the Chinese theatrical market achieved in 2015 (the January growth figures were released by Beijing-based box office monitor, Ent Group).

The overall box office expansion means that Hollywood studios are making more money from China than ever, but their market share in the country has been on the wane — in 2015, Hollywood's share fell to 38.4 percent from 45.5 percent in 2014. China's regulators continue to employ selective scheduling to promote local fare. The Chinese film industry's output is becoming more diverse and professionally polished, too. 

In January, that trend continued, with Hollywood titles representing approximately 29 percent, or $169.2 million, of the month's overall total (British movies took a little over 4 percent, thanks to Sherlock: The Abominable Bride's $24.4 million run).  

The big Hollywood entry of the month was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opened in China on Jan. 9. Through Tuesday, Force Awakens had grossed $123 million, a little less than the $123.6 million earned to date by Detective Chinatown, a local action-comedy set in Thailand and produced by Wanda Media and Youku Tudou's Heyi Pictures. Force Awakens edged out Detective Chinatown as the highest-grossing movie of January, since the Chinese title opened on Dec. 31.

Other Western movies in the market for the first month of January were Vin Diesel's The Last Witch Hunter ($25.6 million), The Walk ($12.6 million), Solace ($5.3 million) and Alvin and the Chipmunks 4 ($5.7 million).  

In February, Chinese films are expected to dominate more decisively, as local regulators institute a blackout period on foreign movie imports during the Chinese New Year holidays, spanning the first half of the month. Much anticipated Chinese titles — including Stephen Chow's Mermaid and From Vegas to Macau 2, starring Chow Yun-fat — are forecasted to make hay over the holidays.

Hollywood's big hope for February is Oriental DreamWork's Kung Fu Panda 3, which was allowed to open during the lucrative festive season thanks to its status as a co-production with China Film Group, and ODW's joint venture investment from China Media Capital and Shanghai Media Group. The threequel opened in China on Jan. 29, earning a strong $73.6 million through Tuesday after scoring the largest debut of all time in China for an animated film. Since it's an official Chinese co-production, regulators count KFP3's grosses on the Chinese side of the revenue share equation. 

The growth of China's movie industry has been fueled by the steady emergence of a modern consumerist lifestyle across the country's 1.3 billion population, and the concomitant expansion of movie exhibition infrastructure. In 2014, 8,035 movie screens were installed in China — a construction rate of 22 screens per day.

At the end of 2015, China's screen count sat at 31,627, according to state sources. North America is estimated to have about 39,000 movie screens. If the current rate of growth holds up, China will surpass North America as the world's largest movie market in early 2017. 

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