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Weak March Means China Box Office Recovery Is Not Yet in Sight

China’s theatrical box office showed no sign of recovery in the first quarter of the year, with a weak March following an up-and-down first two months of 2017.

Box office revenue for March was RMB3.37 billion ($488 million), according to data from Ent Group. That was 9% lower than March 2016’s reported total of $539 million (RMB3.72 billion). Admissions were 101 million, down from 109 million in the equivalent month last year.

Data had shown January gaining on last year and February declining. But that was due in large part to the shift of the important Chinese New Year holiday period from February last year to January this time.

Since the beginning of this year, the fees earned by online ticketing agencies have been identified separately. Removing those from the calculation makes March look even weaker with an adjusted gross figure of RMB3.11 billion ($451 million).

On an unadjusted basis, the first three months of 2017 weigh in at RMB14.5 billion ($2.1 billion), exactly the same figure as the first quarter of 2016. But taking out the online ticketing fees from the 2017 figure would show a year-on-year drop of 6%. In terms of ticket sales, the first quarter of 2017 saw 411 million admissions, down 2% from the 418 million in 2016.

After more than a decade of almost uninterrupted growth, theatrical box office in China ground to a sudden halt in mid-2016. That was widely attributed to a reduction in the subsidies provided to consumers by the competing online ticketing agencies, something which drove up the net price to cinema-goers, and to a crackdown on misreporting of figures by theater and distributors.

Blame was also pointed at a weak crop of films, both Hollywood and local, in 2016. In order to keep the turnstiles spinning, Chinese regulators allowed in far more Hollywood films than in previous years.

The weakness this year appears more clearly to lie with domestic titles. Only the five major Chinese movies released at Chinese New Year (“Kung Fu Yoga,” “Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back,” “Duckweed,” “Buddies in India,” and “Boonie Bears: Entangled Worlds,” all released Jan. 28) have had any impact.

A number of Hollywood films have surprised with bigger-than-anticipated results. These include: “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” with $164 million; “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” with $160 million; and “A Dog’s Purpose,” now on $85 million.

At CinemaCon, China’s industry bosses tried to sound optimistic that a turnaround will still happen. Wanda Cinemas president John Zeng said that growth would normalize at 15-20% per year.

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