It's Official: China Overtakes North America as World's Biggest Box Office in 2020

My People, My Homeland still
Courtesy of Beijing Culture

'My People, My Homeland'

As the American entertainment industry ponders whether the pandemic has done permanent damage to moviegoing, China's theaters have returned to strong earnings.

China is officially home to the world's biggest movie box office.

Movie ticket sales in China for 2020 climbed to $1.988 billion on Sunday, surpassing North America's total of $1.937 billion, according to data from Artisan Gateway. The gap is expected to widen considerably by year's end.

Analysts have long predicted that the world's most populous country would one day top the global charts. But the results still represent a historic sea change: North America has been the global box office's center of gravity since the dawn of the motion picture business.

It only took a pandemic to accelerate the transition.

Thanks to China's effective containment of COVID-19, the country’s tens of thousands of theaters are operating at 75 percent of usual seating capacity, while filmgoers are demonstrating little hesitation about returning to the multiplex.

During the recent weeklong National Day holiday, running Oct. 1-8, China's cinemas sold $586 million worth of tickets. Local blockbuster My People, My Homeland brought in $19.1 million over just the past weekend, lifting its total earnings to $360 million after 18 days. China also has produced the world's biggest hit of 2020, WWII epic The Eight Hundred, with $460 million and counting. (Hollywood's biggest global earner this year is Sony's Bad Boys for Life at $426.5 million.)

The state of the North American box office, meanwhile, could scarcely be more dire. With theaters in many major markets still closed due to the United States' dangerously high COVID-19 infection rates, much of the industry's chatter has turned to the question of whether the damage done to the domestic theatrical film model might become permanent.

The major studios have postponed all of their biggest tentpole releases — such as Marvel's Black Widow and the James Bond film No Time to Die — until at least early 2021. AMC Theatres, North America's largest cinema chain, warned last week that it could run out of cash by the end of this year.

Liam Neeson's action flick Honest Thief, from Open Road, topped the North American box office over the past frame with just $3.7 million — results that were considered respectable given the state of cinemas.

Some industry insiders also worry that escalating political turmoil between Washington and Beijing could soon undercut Hollywood's longterm foothold in China, the one market where sales are again strong.

In the seemingly distant days of 2019, North America was still on top with combined annual tickets sales of $11.4 billion, with China trailing in second place at $9.2 billion. China's 2020 win comes with a COVID-19 asterisk — the question is whether the new order will prove permanent.