Sagging performance by local films and a modest Chinese New Year haul left the Chinese box office down 8% in the first quarter of this year.
Gross box office in the three months from January to March 2019 totaled RMB18.6 billion ($2.77 billion), according to data from specialty consultancy Artisan Gateway. That compares with revenue of RMB20.2 billion ($3.01 billion) in the same period of 2018.
The quarter is usually one of the busiest and most important of the year as it spans the Chinese New Year (aka Lunar New Year or Spring Festival) holidays, which can fall either in January, or February. And many distributors target their key, general entertainment films releases at the time in order to catch family audiences.
This year’s Spring Festival produced an unexpected winner in Chinese-made sci-fi film “The Wandering Earth,” which has gone on to accumulate $693 million, but other films including “Crazy Alien” underperformed, or flopped. In total, the holiday period produced only a 1.8% improvement on 2018, at RMB5.9 billion ($878 million).
That should be considered as like for like decrease, given that Chinese exhibition companies have brought on stream 8,000 new screens in the previous 12 months. Artisan Gateway reports that China counts 63,600 cinema screens, of which nearly 90%, or 56,900 of which are 3D capable.
The market share enjoyed by Chinese-language films in the first quarter dropped three percentage points, from 74% in 2018 to 71% in 2019.
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The total number of new film releases and the number of foreign films entering the market on revenue sharing quota import terms both dropped. While 116 films obtained releases between January and March 2018, only 102 reached theaters in the equivalent 2019 period. Quota imports dropped from 15 in early 2018, to just 10 in 2019, and “Bumblebee,” released on Jan. 4, was the top grossing foreign of the quarter with $171 million.
While the gross figures look weak, the admissions trend is worse. The total number of tickets sold dropped by 14% from 561 million in the first three months of 2018, to 480 million this year. The admissions fall was cushioned by an increase in mean ticket prices. These rose from an average of RMB36.1 ($5.37) in the first quarter of last year, to RMB38.8 ($5.77) in the quarter just completed.
The first quarter downtrend continues a weak December, and extends what some in the Chinese industry are now referring to as a long cold winter. Last year, box office barely scraped over the government set target.