Chinese boxoffice fat in the year of the pig

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BEIJING -- Led by a quartet of Hollywood blockbusters, China's boxoffice jumped about 27% in 2007, reaching 3.3 billion yuan ($449 million), according to the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

The year-end boxoffice report dated Friday was posted to the English-language Web site of the official Xinhua news agency Monday. It made no mention of foreign films, even though four of the top six films in China last year were imports from Hollywood.

While China's official total boxoffice represents a major leap from 2006 -- when returns stood at 2.6 billion yuan ($352 million) -- the nation's boxoffice accounts for just a fraction of the global boxoffice of $40 billion. Many say this is due to the high cost of tickets (at least $8) relative to widely available illegal DVDs (about $1) and free Internet downloads.

Illegal copies are generally uncensored, unlike most theatrical releases here. Notably censored in 2007 was Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," which had several minutes of sexually explicit content stripped from its local-release version.

Still, China added hundreds of new screens in 2007, and attending a movie on half-price Tuesdays continued to grow in popularity among newly wealthy urbanites flooding China's biggest cities.

So what did Chinese audiences go see in 2007?

An informal poll of four major theater chains showed that four of China's six top-earning boxoffice hits were imported from Hollywood.

The Hollywood imports, each of which also earned more than 100 million yuan, were led by "Transformers," followed by the latest installments in the "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Harry Potter" and "Spider-Man" franchises.

Local war epics "Warlords," from Hong Kong's Peter Chan, and "Assembly," from Beijing's Feng Xiaogang, earned well over 100 million yuan ($13.5 million) each in the year-end period when no imports were allowed to screen in competition with Chinese-language films.

Meanwhile, regulatory officials appeared again to value quantity over quality, boasting in the report that China produced a record 402 features in 2007, the fifth year in a row that China increased the number of films made, SARFT said. Only a fraction of those made it to the big screen though, let alone performed.

In 2007, China exported 78 feature films to 47 foreign countries and regions, SARFT said. The exports earned a total of 2.02 billion yuan ($273 million) in overseas sales, a jump of roughly 6% from the 1.91 billion yuan ($244 million) earned overseas in 2006.

The weakness of the American dollar could have slowed the growth of overseas sales. Revenue overseas in 2006, when 73 Chinese films were released in 44 countries, rose nearly 16% from the 1.65 billion yuan earned in 2005, Xinhua said.
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