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Foreign Films Overtake Domestic Productions at 2012 Chinese Box Office

Official statistics reveal annual takings for Chinese movies trail imports for the first time in history, despite the late surge of record-breaking comedy "Lost in Thailand."

HONG KONG – Releasing year-end figures showing soaring takings at the Chinese box office in 2012, officials from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television’s Film Bureau have emphasized that the spectacular leap in earnings -- with total revenue rising by 28 percent and takings from homegrown films by 14 percent -- showcase the “potential and hope” of the country’s film industry.

Coupled with the much-reported, record-shattering performance of Lost in Thailand -- the comedy took in 940 million yuan (US$150.7 million) through Dec. 30, with many expecting it to surpass Titanic 3D as the highest-grossing film in China in 2012 -- all was made to seem well. Like the Film Bureau officials, a report in the official People’s Daily on Dec. 31 waxed lyrical about the achievements of Xu Zheng’s festive hit.

But there’s another record being broken in China for 2012 as well. For the first time in history, imported films have taken more than half of total box office earnings. According to the Film Bureau’s figures, domestic productions have taken just 8 billion yuan (US$1.28 billion), or 47.6 percent of the total annual gross of 16.8 billion yuan (US$2.69 billion).  In 2011, homegrown films accounted for 53 percent of the total ticket sales of 13.1 billion yuan (US$2.1 billion).

The Chinese market could have succumbed even more to imports if not for the performances during the past week of domestic hits such as Lost in Thailand, Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 and Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac. Official figures reveal that homegrown productions only accounted for 35 percent of box office totals in the first half of the year, with three imports -- Titanic 3D, The Avengers and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol -- leading the rankings until Painted Skin: Resurrection (released in July) and then Lost in Thailand.

As the Chinese film industry grapples with the repercussions of an increased import quota -- the market will see 34 foreign shared-revenue films every year, as announced by Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in February -- the fortunes of mainland filmmakers in 2013 remain very much in flux.  But one thing is certain: film consumption in China has grown astronomically, as total gross has increased by a staggering 19 times during the past decade, from 900 million yuan (US$144.2 million) in 2002 to 16.8 billion yuan (US$2.69 billion) this past year.