China's Box Office in 2018: 5 Takeaways From a Roller-Coaster Year

Dying to Survive STILL 1 - H 2018
Beijing Culture

China's theatrical box office is expected to finish the year up nearly 10 percent overall, but Hollywood revenue is down despite some breakthrough successes.

China's movie box office is expected to clock in another year of solid — albeit slowing — growth in 2018.

Beijing regulators won't release their official numbers until early in the New Year, but the latest data suggests ticket sales revenue will be up at least 9 percent for the full year, according to leading local box office tracker Artisan Gateway.

As of Dec. 20, the total box office was hovering around RMB 59 billion ($8.61 billion at current exchange rates), putting Beijing's stated full-year target of RMB 60 billion within reach. Total sales in 2017 were RMB 55.31 billion ($8.5 billion at last year's exchange rate, but $8.06 billion at current rates — a weakening of the Chinese currency has been a drag on repatriated Hollywood earnings this year).

China's steady top-line growth number, however, belies the near-constant flux that again characterized the world's second-biggest film market in 2018. Regulatory crackdowns, changing audience tastes, surprise blockbusters and slowing infrastructure expansion all conspired to ensure that there was seldom a dull moment at the Middle Kingdom's multiplexes. Here is a brief look back at five China box office takeaways from 2018. 

Chinese titles surged, Hollywood imports slipped

For much of the year, Chinese-language filmmaking was in ascendence, while Hollywood's position became a little precarious. According to Artisan Gateway's most recent reporting in late December, revenue from U.S. studio films released through China's quota system is down 16.5 percent, year on year. Sales for China-made movies, meanwhile, climbed 21.6 percent according to late December data, from RMB 30.1 billion in 2017 to 36.6 billion in 2018.

Helped by steadily improving production and storytelling quality, homegrown Chinese films captured the local audience's attention as never before during the first two-thirds of the year. Hollywood product, meanwhile, proved somewhat less consistent, despite the U.S. studios having a banner year in North America. Several U.S. films achieved huge earnings — Venom ($270 million), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom ($261 million) and Aquaman ($250 million and counting) — but only one (Avengers: Infinity War with $360 million) made it into China's top five titles for the year, where local action epics and comedies dominated. 

The bumper crop of high-quality Chinese filmmaking failed to maintain its momentum in the final quarter of the year, however, so regulators turned to their usual tactic to maintain growth — opening the gates for Hollywood imports. November and December saw one U.S. tentpole after another open — with limited strong competition from the home team. 

"Hollywood titles didn’t strike the same chords with audiences this year, although the release of imports such as Aquaman into December, a period normally reserved for year-end Chinese-language blockbusters, is providing an opportunity for Hollywood to make up important ground in the mainland for 2018," notes Rance Pow, Artisan Gateway's CEO.

A local drama critiqued government policy and became a hit

For a winning example of the Chinese industry's rapidly improving creative output, look to Dying to Survive, that rarest of things in the country's traditionally censorship-constrained film business: a high-profile commercial movie that actually addresses an urgent, real-life local social problem in the country (rather than the usual martial arts period drama, urban romantic comedy or Monkey King mythology).

Directed by 33-year-old Muye Wen and produced by Chinese hitmaker Ning Hao, Dying to Survive told the true story of a Chinese trader (played by comedy favorite Xu Zheng) who turned to smuggling generic cancer drugs from India after he was diagnosed with leukemia and discovered the prohibitive expense of official medication offered by Chinese state hospitals. The man went on to save more than 1,000 lives by importing generic medicine into China for low-income patients before he was arrested for smuggling unapproved drugs (he was later freed without penalty when it was discovered that he had never profited from the sales).

Made in the mold of a classic Oscar drama (Dallas Buyers Club or Philadelphia), Dying to Survive became an instant box office phenomenon upon its release in July, earning more than $453 million (from a budget of $10.9 million), while also demonstrating the Chinese audience's hunger for filmmaking with social relevance. Even more surprising, the Chinese government opted to piggyback on the film's success rather than issuing a punishment for the open critique of official policy. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang later publicly praised the film, urging regulators to "speed up price cuts for cancer drugs" and "reduce the burden on families."

Chinese tastes continued to diversify

Hollywood's overdue embrace of onscreen diversity and inclusion hasn't resonated the same way in China, where the population is 91.6 percent Han Chinese, as it has in the multicultural U.S. Wonder Woman and Black Panther both earned sizable sums in China — $90 million and $105 million — but they didn't become the breakout phenoms they were stateside ($413 million and $700 million). Crazy Rich Asians, similarly, was viewed as a distinctly American confection, earning just $1.6 million in China compared with $174 million in North America.

China's mostly lukewarm — albeit predictable — reaction to American celebrations of representation doesn't mean the Middle Kingdom market hasn't exhibited its own tendencies toward diversification, though. Both Indian and Japanese film imports spiked in 2018, with films from these culturally distinctive territories generating box office totals that would be inconceivable in the U.S.

Some 15 Japanese films were shown theatrically in China this year, up from nine titles last year. Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters even earned $14.1 million in the Middle Kingdom, a huge total for a prestige art house title, easily dwarfing the $795,000 the movie earned in North America. Several Japanese anime films, such as Doraemon the Movie: Nobita's Treasure Island ($31 million) and a remastered version of Studio Ghibli's My Neighbor Totoro ($22 million) also did robust business. Trailing the smash success of Aamir Khan's Dangal in 2017 ($191 million), 10 India films were brought into China in 2018, including strong earners like Khan's Secret Superstar ($118 million) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan ($45 million). No other national film audience close to China's size has shown a willingness to watch culturally distinct, subtitled filmmaking at such scale.

Movie screen construction slows

In 2017, China overtook the U.S. to become the country with the most movie screens in the world. The breakneck expansion of the national exhibition network has been the main engine behind China's explosive box office growth over the past decade. Signs are finally emerging that the country's mighty screen total might be finding a ceiling. According to local media estimates, China had 59,009 screens as of Nov. 30, up 16.2 percent from 2017's total of 50,776 screens. While that's still a remarkable expansion, the growth is clearly slowing. China's cinema networked logged a 23.3 percent increase in screens in 2017, down from a 30.2 percent expansion in 2016. In the years ahead, studios won't be able to count on the Chinese pie growing of its own accord — filling all of those new multiplexes will depend on innovative marketing more than ever.  

A big-budget Hollywood-China co-production finally worked

Since the dawn of the Chinese boom era, studios on both sides of the Pacific have sedulously pursued the elusive U.S.-China co-production — a movie produced with financing, production involvement and story elements from both countries — thanks to the enticing financial rewards involved in bridging the world's two biggest film markets. Such collaborations have seldom worked in the real world, however, given the challenges of developing a story that can organically connect both cultures (recall the debacle that was The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon in a decidedly fantastical ancient China).

Well, it turns out all you need to unite the world is Jason Statham, Li Bingbing and a giant shark in the dog days of summer. Throwback action flick The Meg, co-produced by Warner Brothers and China's Gravity Pictures, brought in a rich $145 million in North America and a whopping $153 million in China, proving that it can, in some cases, be done.