China Is Now the Number One International Market for European Films

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Chinese admissions to European films soared 69 percent in 2017 to 35.8 million, according to a new study by the European Audiovisual Observatory, compared with 27.1 million admissions for European movies in North America.

The biggest audience for European movies outside Europe is no longer America. It's China.

North American cinema goers have long been the primary foreign audience for European movies — hardly surprising given the long tradition of European influence on Hollywood, and vice versa. But, according to a study released Monday by the European Audiovisual Observatory, more people in China are paying to watch European movies than they are in the U.S.

For the first time, admissions to European films in China topped those of the U.S. In 2017, the last year for which data is available, 35.8 million Chinese fans bought a ticket to a European film. That's a 69 percent jump compared with 2016 and represents 37 percent of all admissions to European films outside Europe. In contrast, admissions in North America fell slightly, to 27.1 million in 2017, accounting for just under a third (28 percent) of total non-European admissions globally. Just behind that was Latin America, which booked 23.7 million admissions for European movies, or 24 percent of the total.

Lower ticket prices in China compared to the U.S. and Canada meant that North America is still the most lucrative market for European movies, accounting for 41 percent of the $587 million (528 million euros) in box office that European films earned outside Europe in 2017.

But the Chinese boom is significant. The EAO estimates that the annual jump in admissions to European films in 2017 —from 80 million to 97 million — was entirely due to China. This is all the more impressive given how few European films make it to the Middle Kingdom. China's quota system meant fewer than 30 European films got a theatrical release there in 2017, compared with 223 European films that bowed in North America the same year.

Overall, the global audience for European movies has been growing steadily, increasing on average by 10 percent per year for each of the five years to 2017, the EAO found.

Like the rest of the movie industry, however, European cinema is a hit-driven business. A single film — Luc Besson's sci-fi adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, sold 19.4 million tickets outside Europe in 2017, fully 20 percent of the global total. Much of that was in China, where Valerian was helped by its Chinese co-production partner Fundamental Films. The top 10 European films accounted for 61 percent of international admissions, the top 50 for 87 percent and the top 100 for 95 percent. Other Europe-made international hits in 2017 included British-made shark horror film 47 Meters Down (7.4 million admissions outside of Europe), StudioCanal's family film Paddington 2 (6.5 million admissions) and Spanish thriller Contratiempo (5.5 million).

French and U.K. titles dominated the international market, with a third of total tickets sold outside of Europe going to French and British movies each. But the Franco-Anglo duopoly is slightly weaker than in previous years (in 2016, a total of 72 percent of international admissions for European films were for movies from one of the two countries). Spanish films did particularly well in 2017, clocking up 12.1 international admissions. Russia was a distant fourth with 5.1 million admissions, ahead of Germany with 4.5 million.

Prospects in China continue to be good for European cinema, which is unlikely to be affected (and could even benefit) from the escalating trade dispute between China and the U.S.

The European movies most likely to benefit are the ones that most resemble the U.S. blockbusters so beloved by Chinese multiplex audiences: broad comedies, action thrillers and family-friendly animation movies. But the surprise success of Nadine Labaki's France-Lebanon co-production Capernaum in China (where the Oscar-nominated social drama grossed more than $40 million) shows that there are also opportunities for European films outside the mainstream.

Unless China begins to loosen its distribution quotas for Europe, however, the Middle Kingdom's box office potential will not be something most European films can bank on.