China Box Office Grows Astonishing 48.7 Percent in 2015, Hits $6.78 Billion

Monster Hunt Still 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of Edko Films

Monster Hunt Still 1 - H 2015

Hollywood movies accounted for 38.4 percent of the Chinese box office this year, falling from a 45.5 percent market share in 2014.

The box office in China, the world's second-largest moviegoing market, grew an astonishing 48.7 percent in 2015, reaching a record $6.78 billion (44 billion yuan), the country's film regulator reported late Thursday. 

The expansion marked the highest rate of growth since 2011, according to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). Only five years ago, the total annual box office in China was just $1.51 billion.

By the end of 2017, China is expected to surpass North America — which reached a record $11 billion in box-office revenue in 2015 — as the largest movie market in the world. 

Proving a continuing source of frustration for Hollywood, Chinese films claimed 61.6 percent of the year's total returns, "maintaining a clear dominance over the country's cinema market," as China's state-backed Xinhua news agency put it. Hollywood titles fell from a 45.5 percent market share in 2014 to 38.4 percent of the box-office gross this year.

China's industry regulators maintained their long-running campaign to boost the performance of local movies, while limiting Hollywood's access to the market, including extended black-out periods for foreign titles.

Three Hollywood movies — Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World — landed in the top 10 at the Chinese box office in 2015, compared to five last year.

Despite an economic slowdown in the country this year, the meteoric growth of China's film industry has been fueled by an expanding middle class and breakneck expansion of cinema infrastructure. A total of 8,035 screens were installed in China in 2014 — a rate of 22 screens erected every day. China's screen count currently sits at 31,627; North America's is estimated around 39,000.

With a population four times the size of the United States, China has plenty of room for growth. The country's 1.35 billion citizens went to the movies just 0.8 times this year, compared to an average of 3.22 annual theater visits by Americans and 3.87 visits per year in neighboring South Korea. 

According to a 2012 memorandum of understanding that was ratified this fall, China allows only 34 foreign films into its cinemas each year on revenue-sharing terms, and Hollywood gets just 25 percent of its movies' box-office gross in China (40 to 50 percent is common in other territories around the world).

China also retains control of scheduling, which it has wielded controversially to further diminish Hollywood's market sway by premiering would-be blockbusters on weekdays instead of Fridays. Other tactics include scheduling Hollywood tentpoles head-to-head so that they cannibalize each other's box office, or blocking foreign film imports from the market altogether during popular movie-going periods during the summer and winter holidays. 

Still, Chinese films improved in both quality and diversity in 2015, as local filmmakers became more adept at telling stories that resonated with lives and aspirations of the new middle class. That sentiment was echoed by SARFT in its year-end box office statement.

"Domestic films no longer merely rely on the box office," the body said. "In 2015, more films achieved both outstanding box-office performances and critical acclaim."

SARFT highlighted Monkey King: Hero is Back, a 3D animated film based on a beloved classic Chinese story, and the live-action/animation fantasy Monster Hunt, as examples of the domestic film industry's growing storytelling prowess.

The biggest movie of the year in China, Monster Hunt, was directed by Hong Kong-born, DreamWorks-trained filmmaker Raman Hui. It grossed $381.1 million, unseating Universal's Furious 7 ($379 million) as China's all-time box office champ.

But many believe Monster Hunt's title should come with an asterisk. Local regulators left the movie in the market nearly twice as long as Furious 7's 30-day run, and cinemagoers raised concerns of box office fraud with widespread reports that many of movie's "sold-out" screenings were actually nearly empty. After the issue was addressed in news reports by China's state broadcaster CCTV, producer Edko Pictures admitted it had given away $6.2 million worth of tickets for “public welfare screenings.” The company promised to punish those involved, but from the point of view of China's industry regulators at year end, the record stands.