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Chinese box office roars as Hollywood goes silent

The Chinese box office got off to a flying start during the crucial Lunar New Year holiday as the majority of cinemas remain closed in North America, underscoring the divergent fates of the world’s two largest film markets.

At 7 p.m. in Beijing on Friday, the Chinese box office had already achieved a turnover of 1.7 billion Rmb ($ 260 million), according to the reservation service Maoyan, with 10 major local films set to release during the holiday period.

The pandemic has resulted in a striking rift between Hollywood, the longtime entertainment capital of the world, and China, which toppled the United States last year as the biggest money maker in box office sales. .

As cinemas in the United States and Europe remain largely empty as the pandemic continues, China ticket office rebounded sharply as movie attendance returned to almost normal levels.

During the national holiday, although cinemas remain limited to a capacity of three quarters of seats, ticket sales reached 3.9 billion Rmb, the second highest record on record.

Hollywood executives and analysts fear the trend may continue even after the pandemic, as the US entertainment industry moves towards online streaming. Warner Bros. is releasing all of its movies this year on its HBO Max streaming service alongside theaters.

“It looks like more and more, [the US box office] will be additional income to streaming, ”said Jeff Bock, longtime box office analyst for exhibitor relations. “[The US] may never again have a weekend that even affects what the Chinese New Year will do this year, ”he warned.

2020 also marked another milestone for the Chinese film industry: the first time that all of the country’s 10 top-grossing films were made by Chinese studios.

Over the past decade, Hollywood blockbusters have gone from dominating the top 10 Chinese box office to striving for a place alongside local productions. According to the National Commission for the Management of the Special Fund for the Development of the Chinese Film Industry, imported films accounted for less than 16% of the total box office in 2020, up from 36% in 2019.

Presales of tickets for the Lunar New Year, a peak period for Chinese theatrical releases, were dominated by Chinese studies titles.

Detective Chinatown 3, the latest installment in a famous slapstick comedy franchise from Wanda Pictures, is expected to top the holiday charts. He had bookings of over 1 billion rmb ($ 155 million) on Friday night, according to Maoyan.

Part of this dynamic can be explained by the pandemic, which has prompted US studios to postpone most of their blockbusters until later this year or 2022.

And Hollywood has always faced state-imposed limits on its ability to reach and benefit Chinese audiences. Beijing’s film industry regulator maintains a quota of 34 imported films per year, and importers can only keep 25% of box office revenue – the remaining revenue goes to state-owned China Film Group or Huaxia Movie.

Mulan has faced a nationalist backlash in China © REUTERS

But these factors alone cannot explain the strength of the China-led functionalities in recent years.

Chinese studios have learned to match Hollywood with polished production, special effects, and celebrity and franchise branding, while also becoming adept at harnessing national sentiment to boost sales, a trend encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party. .

“Local [Chinese] market has spent 10 years inviting Hollywood to come and show them the ropes. Now the local market has matured, ”said a senior entertainment lawyer who works with the major studios. “It is not easy to fit films into the [Chinese] market, and even when you do, income in fractions of what they were ”.

Mulan, Disney’s live-action remake of the 1998 animated film, was greeted with a nationalist backlash in China, as pirated versions of the film surfaced on social media ahead of the official release. The film went on to only gross $ 40 million in China.

Wonder Woman: 1984, the sequel to the hit film starring Gal Gadot, grossed $ 25 million in China, less than a third of the $ 90 million its 2017 predecessor brought in. Soul, a recent Pixar film, performed relatively well, grossing $ 56 million in sales in China.

The surprise success of The eight hundred, which in 2020 grossed $ 450 million to become China’s first global box office hit, pointed to the subtle line that Chinese studios have learned to walk in pursuit of success.

The war epic set in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of 1937 was originally delayed for one year due to its portrayal of the troops of the Kuomintang Nationalist Army, which fought the Communist Party for the Chinese civil war.

But after the changes required by the regulator, the film, which released just as Chinese theaters reopened after months of lockdown, not only struck a nerve among audiences with its story of Chinese soldiers uniting against all odds. – it was also adopted by the State. media as “patriotic” and presented during Communist Party screenings.

“Film buffs have a soft spot for films made by filmmakers in their own country,” said David Chen, production manager at Versatile Media, a Hangzhou-based studio. “It is inevitable that they revolve around these films.”

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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