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As moviegoing in North America and Europe is getting battered all over again thanks to the omicron variant, China’s theatrical film sector is revving up to set a slew of new box-office records.
The country’s weeklong Chinese New Year holiday period, always a bonanza for local studios and exhibitors, kicks off Feb. 1, and analysts believe a bumper crop of high-profile potential blockbusters — eight local titles are currently scheduled for simultaneous release this year — could lift the market to unprecedented heights.
During Chinese New Year in 2021, ticket sales totaled a record $1.2 billion, with family comedy Hi, Mom leading the way with an eventual total haul of $821 million (Wanda’s comedy Detective Chinatown 3 wasn’t far behind with $685 million). Ticket revenue during the seven-day holiday amounted to a whopping 16.6 percent of China’s full-year box office total and the full month of February took at 25 percent share of the year’s sales (Unfortunately for Hollywood, Beijing blocks all foreign film releases during the family holiday — a practice U.S. trade negotiators have lamented with little effect for over a decade — so all gains go only to the local Chinese industry).
Analysts are expecting more of the same for 2022. “This year’s Chinese New Year season could reach a new high-water mark of $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion (RMB 8 billion to RMB 8.5 billion),” says Rance Pow, president of cinema industry consultancy Artisan Gateway.
Leading the charge is The Battle at Lake Changjin 2: Water Gate Bridge, the second installment in a nationalistic war saga about China’s real-life victory over the U.S. in a key battle during the Korean War. Co-directed by a trio of Chinese hitmakers, Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam, the franchise’s first film was only released last September and went on to become China’s top-grossing movie of all time with $901.5 million. China’s state-backed Global Times newspaper reported Jan. 23 that the film was leading the ticket pre-sales race with $5.64 million with a little over a week to go before opening day. The outlet went so far as to forecast that The Battle at Lake Changjin 2 would become the first Chinese film to earn over $1 billion (RMB 6.5 billion)
China’s box office outcomes are notoriously tricky to predict with confidence, however, as frontrunners have often been felled by negative audience reaction within the early hours of their release, and dark horse contenders have then galloped ahead. “Social media word of mouth in China can be a powerful determinant of a film’s commercial success, and the market has shown an adeptness for adjusting to audience preference if the pre-season favorite does not launch quickly,” explains Pow.
Other top contenders this year include drama Nice View, director Wen Muye’s follow-up to his 2018 hit, Dying to Survive ($451 million); and road trip comedy-drama Only Fools Rush In, from former blogger turned fan favorite director Han Han (his previously release, Pegasus, earned $256 million in 2019); local director legend Zhang Yimou’s Korean War biopic, Sharpshooter; and comedy caper Too Cool to Kill, from relative newcomer, Xing Wenxiong; among much else.
The only major Western entertainment business that enjoys regular participation in the Chinese New Year earnings sensation is Imax, which operates over 750 screens in the country. Each year, the Canadian exhibitor places its bets by picking one or two titles to covert into its giant screen format. In 2020, Imax has selected three expected winners, Battle at Lake Changjin 2 (which was filmed for Imax), Nice View and Han Han’s Only Fools Rush In.
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