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China’s Ascent to No. 1 Film Market Now Stalled Until 2019

China is still poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest film market, but a slowing of audience growth means the handover of market supremacy will likely now occur in 2019, not 2017, as previously predicted, a top trade association executive said Tuesday.

Audience growth in China had been projected at 30% but now appears to be at 20% or less, said Michael Ellis, Asia-Pacific president for the Motion Picture Association of America. “It’s going to happen, it’s just not quite sure when,” said Ellis, speaking at the U.S.-China Film Summit at UCLA.

Ellis said the audience in China skews younger than in the U.S., with viewers in the 25 to 30 age bracket visiting the cinema a dozen times or more a year — representing more than 40% of that nation’s market.

In a snapshot of the Chinese market for the seventh annual conference — sponsored by the Asia Society Southern California — Ellis reported that the average ticket price now stands at $5.65, compared to the $8.61-a-seat average in the United States.

Despite estimates that the Chinese exhibition industry is expanding by 20 screens a day, the nation remains under-resourced compared to the United States. China has an estimated 35,000 theater screens, or 25.7 per million of population, compared to 40,174 screens in the U.S., 123.7 per million population.

Ellis discussed the continuing speculation over whether China will increase its annual quota — most recently set at 34 films a year — on the number of foreign movie imports allowed into the country for screening. He said it was hard to predict whether that number will change, but said the quota has always been a floor, not a ceiling, for foreign films in China.

“China can and will exceed that quota when there are market reasons to do so,” Ellis said.

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