Homegrown movies account for an ever-rising piece of the box office pie in China, reflecting the sharp growth of the country’s film industry.
Six of the top 10 grossing films in China were locally produced last year — the first time local films have outgrossed Hollywood imports since China opened its screens to foreign product in 1994.
Of course, Hollywood faces limits on imports in China, and piracy is rampant. Despite these inhibitions, a recent survey of the country’s major cities found that two out of three Chinese have a favorable opinion of Americans thanks to movies.
The biggest earner was helmer Chen Kaige’s fantasy epic “The Promise,” which notched $18 million in the mainland, beating out Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which took in $11.5 million at No. 2. “The Promise” earned almost double the take of “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” the second most popular foreign film after “Goblet of Fire.”
Other big-grossing Hollywood pics included “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “War of the Worlds,” according to figures released Tuesday by state regulator the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
“The spring of domestic movies is coming at last,” Zhang Hongsen, deputy chief of Sarft, told the China Daily.
“The Promise” cost a reported $30 million, making it China’s most expensive film to date. It is set for North American release in May through Warner Independent Pictures.
The names of the other Chinese films in the top 10 were not made available. But they are likely to include historical samurai pic “Seven Swords,” released in July after Sarft cleared the skeds of foreign films to give it a good run; martial arts fantasy “Chinese Tall Story”; “Initial D,” a car-chase drama set in modern-day Japan, which was a China/Hong Kong co-production; and Jackie Chan starrer “The Myth,” another co-production with Hong Kong.
China’s total box office take last year was $247 million, up 33% on 2004, with the 120 local pics shown accounting for about 60% of that figure.
The top 10 movies accounted for half the total, however, so Hollywood’s take was still significant.
Some 50 foreign film were shown in 2005: Although there’s an annual quota of 20 foreign pics that can be brought in for revenue-sharing distribution, there’s no set limit for the import of foreign movies acquired on a flat-fee basis.
Piracy accounts in part for the fall of Hollywood pics in the top 10. Illegal DVDs of U.S. films are freely available in China, whether or not the pics get a release in the country. But piracy also plagues Chinese films.
Meanwhile, improved exhibition has helped fuel the B.O. boom. For years Chinese movie theaters were drafty, unpleasant places unappealing to auds. Last year saw many new cinemas constructed and renovation or expansion of older venues.
The biggest cinema chain is Shanghai United Cinema Line, which owns 78 cinemas in Shanghai and eastern China. It showed 169 titles last year, including 124 domestic ones. In 2004 it released only 80 domestic movies.
“Nurturing a large group of frequent moviegoers in the country is crucial for the development of the film industry,” said Zhang.
There were 37 cinema chains in China last year, and the five largest reported B.O. of $111 million, almost half the mainland’s total in 2005.
Key to the success of the biz in China were marketing drives launched to coincide with the country’s holidays, including the Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, in early February and National Day around Oct. 1.
More than 8 million Chinese went to the cinema during Chinese New Year, up almost 90% on the previous year, Sarft said. On average, B.O. during the five holiday periods was up 40% on 2004.
Chinese films earned $204 million overseas last year, and their commercial success was underlined by critical kudos — Gu Changwei’s “Peacock” won the Silver Bear at Berlin, while Wang Xiaoshuai’s “Shanghai Dream” picked up a jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Film production in China was at its highest in years, with about 260 films produced, 25% up on 2004.
(Patrick Frater in Hong Kong contributed to this report.)