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Shanghai: Chinese Film Industry Needs to Focus on Quality After Wobbly 2018

The economics of China’s film industry is no longer an unbroken story of double digit growth. Nor was 2018 quite as bad many companies have portrayed.

A major report on the business, published in Shanghai this week by the China Film Association, in partnership with the Motion Picture Association, showed the number of cinemas grew last year, but also that per screen attendance dropped. Theatrical box office grew by 9% to $9 billion, but China’s share of the global total only edged up from 21% in 2017 to 22% in 2018.

Liu Jia, film distributor and expert on the industry numbers, called 2018 “an up and down year” at a presentation on Thursday at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Her analysis of the CFA data showed China as now “firmly the number two film market in the world,” increasingly dominated by female audience tastes, and increasingly driven by word of mouth marketing. Online ticketing is now dominant, accounting for 90% of movie tickets sold, and cinema operators are increasingly engaging in variable ticket pricing.

Perhaps her most surprising statistic, given the pessimism expressed by many executives over the past week of Shanghai presentations, was the continued numerical growth of feature film productions. The CFA data showed the number of completed feature films rose from 798 in 2017 to 902 in 2018. The data also showed 398 Chinese films enjoyed theatrical release last year, a decrease from the 412 that played in 2017. (The number of foreign films getting a release in 2018 was 118).

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Liu said that the films enjoying the greatest success were those with subjects based on real events, such as “Operation Red Sea” and “Dying to Survive.” The box office success of “The Meg” marked a high point for China-U.S. co-productions.

The CFA data showed that China now has the largest number of cinema screens of any country in the world. Over 9,300 new screens opened for business in 2018, giving an end of year total of 60,000 screens at 11,000 complexes.

The report described a “paradox” of growing exhibition resources and the more modest growth in box office results. It said that resource allocation had been inefficient and that headline growth had disguised the poor operation of some cinemas. Liu suggested that the industry needs to shift focus from speed of cinema growth to improving the quality of that growth. Nevertheless, government regulators have set a target of 80,000 cinemas to be in operation by the end of 2020.

Another speaker, Liu Fan, said that the production slowdown felt in the second half of the year was due to “nationwide deleveraging, rather than any (government) crackdown on the film industry.”

Nevertheless his presentation, referenced the application of changes in tax policies from May 28, 2018 – identified by many producers as the beginning of the production slowdown. He urged enforcement of the law – including those against film stars who use illegal drugs.

It fell to the Motion Picture Association’s Asia-Pacific chief, Mike Ellis to look at the bigger picture, and over a longer period. “The global movie market has maintained a rising trend over the past five years,” he said pointing to a $41 billion box office total in 2018.

Strong performances in China contributed significantly to the global box office totals of some Hollywood films in 2018 – 18% of the worldwide total for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and nearly 30% for “Venom.”

“Of particular interest, three of the top ten Chinese films (in 2018) were directorial debuts, while the remaining seven were from younger directors. That is a sign that the market is open to new exciting talent,” he said.

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