The recently concluded Chinese Spring Festival holiday saw a strong return for local movies, following a significant decline in the box office in 2022. In total 126 million tickets were sold, adding up to CNY 6.65 billion (USD $982 million) as of last Friday.
Four local titles dominated the new releases, though for the first time a Hollywood title (“Avatar: The Way of Water”) was permitted to continue screening even during China’s biggest holiday.
This year’s Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese Lunar New Year, was the second highest on record and higher than last year’s. Six new titles were released and, as well being a financial success, four of them received a score of 7.0 or higher on the review aggregation platform Douban. Highest grossing was Zhang Yimou’s historical suspense comedy “Full River Red,” which took CNY 2.55 billion (USD $380 million) and accounted for 38% of the total box office.
In second place was science fiction prequel “The Wandering Earth 2” with CNY 2.13 billion (USD $310 million), having won the top spot on the first day of release. Animated family sequel “Boogie Bears: Guardian Code” taking CNY 743 million (USD $109 million).
China’s Spring Festival is marked by mass movement of people to visit their families, food and going to the cinema. When COVID first struck China in early 2020, all film releases were cancelled for the Spring Festival. More recently there were fears that China’s reversal of the Zero Covid policy would lead to mass infection that would significantly impact the country, the Lunar New Year holiday and film attendance. Overall 2022 box office was down 36% compared to 2021, which was a year when cinemas largely operated as normal in China, as opposed to most of the rest of the world.
Prior to the Spring Festival, Chinese cinemas had been suffering an extended dry period. “Avatar: the Way of Water” was the largest title in many months and significantly it was granted an extended cinema release into the Spring Festival, which is usually reserved for domestic films only. However, the film was widely de-programmed in favour of new local films. Even so it rose from less than USD $100,000 on Sunday from 210 sessions to USD $720, 000 from almost 2,000 sessions by Tuesday. In total the films “Avatar” sequel has earned over USD $235 million in China, making it the film’s second largest territory after the United States.
It was also a major holiday for IMAX China, which has been actively courting and working with Chinese filmmakers to optimise their films for the large format in the same way that they are in Hollywood. This year marked the second-best opening day for the Spring Festival ever for IMAZ, with its 700+ screens earning USD $7 million on the opening Sunday. Out of this, “The Wandering Earth 2” accounted for USD $6 million, but three more titles (“Full River Red”, “Hidden Blade” and “Deep Sea”) were also released in the large format.
Chinese state media have made a lot over the fact that China’s total box office to-date for 2023 has overtaken North America’s. However, the country has just had its largest cinema holiday, while the start of the year is a relatively quiet period for cinemas in the United States and Canada, even with the “Avatar” sequel still in release. Having overtaken the US as having the largest global box office in 2020 and 2021, China slipped back to second place in 2022.