It is exactly two years since China closed all of its cinemas as part of its effort to stop the spread of the new Coronavirus that had originated in Wuhan. The closures on the eve of the all-important Spring Holiday (a.k.a. Chinese/Lunar New Year), when the biggest local blockbusters are released (and Hollywood films locked out) was a shock. Soon there was outrage as some of the biggest Chinese films went direct to streaming, while Chinese cinema operators struggled with unpaid salaries, overdue rent and unsold popcorn. Sounds familiar? The rest of the world did not take enough notice that 1/3 of all global cinema screens were suddenly dark.
Today China is the world’s biggest cinema market, not just by screen count but by box office. Since the initial closures, China has managed to keep its cinemas mostly open, even as it pursues its ‘Zero Covid’ policy. What has happened during the past two years is what could be called The Great Decoupling From Hollywood. Initially there were no new Hollywood films to be shown, so the country had to rely on domestic hits (“The Eight Hundred”). Later the country turned its back on big Hollywood tentpole titles (Marvel’s “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi”) and arbitrarily allowed some releases (“Dune”, “No Time to Die” and “Death on the Nile”) but not others. As Bloomberg noted in the headline of its article from September last year, “China’s Box Office Becomes a Giant Headache for Hollywood.”
This decoupling is not accidental. The 14th Five Year Plan spelled out that China should not only have over 100,000 cinema screens by 2025, but also be “a strong film power” by 2035. A look at the ComScore 23 January weekend chart shows Chinese films occupying the 5th, 7th and 10th spot – and that was before the Spring Festival releases. China now also has domestic Cinema LED technology that is DCI approved, so it is no longer dependent on foreign suppliers for new and old screens. Lastly Wanda has sold its stake in AMC and is focusing on the domestic market. The tone of Chinese films is increasingly becoming patriotic/nationalistic, from “Wolf Warrior 2” to the two “Battle of Lake Changji” films. China remains a big market and opportunity, not least for premium cinema providers (IMAX and Dolby – read about Dolby Cinema below), but one that is increasingly difficult for outsiders to navigate.
This is why it is more important than ever for Hollywood and the global cinema industry to engage with China. Celluloid Junkie will devote its 17 February CJ Cinema Summit to the vast topic of China and continue our in-depth coverage of the world’s biggest cinema market. This would not be possible without our sponsor Dolby and others, so if you want to stay informed then please help us continue to do our job by clicking the sponsor’s link below. It really makes a difference.
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Celluloid Junkie is the leading online resource dedicated to the global film and cinema business. The Marquee is our newsletter focused on motion picture exhibition; keeping industry professionals informed of important news, the latest trends and insightful analysis