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China Box Office Drops in First Six Months, Revealing Mounting Problems

China’s total box office fell 2.8% to $4.53 billion (RMB31.1 billion) in the first half of 2019. That was the  the first such decline since 2011, Chinese media said.

Reports noted the dip with alarm and dismay. “Although the decline is not large, the situation does not look promising,” wrote Chinese industry website Mtime, while online news source The Paper wrote: “This year audiences could clearly feel that after Chinese New Year, there were no good films to watch, especially among domestic (Chinese) films.”

The slight fall in ticket sales also masks what The Paper called an even graver “hidden crisis”:  a steep decrease in actual cinema-going. China’s total number of screenings has gone up, rising 7.98 million to 61.5 million in the first half of year, but at the same time, there has been a more than 10% drop in actual trips to the theater. Only 806 million tickets were sold in the past six months, down from 901 million in the first half of 2018.

This significant change has been offset by a rise in average ticket prices. Alibaba’s Lighthouse data app shows that average prices in the first half of the year rose some RMB3.04 ($0.44) apiece to RMB38.6 ($5.61)— a figure that might appear as even higher for consumers who are hit with rising online booking fees and falling e-commerce subsidies.

Despite this slowdown, movie theater construction has continued unabated. China has built 3,492 new screens so far in 2019, bringing the national total up to 64,944. Nevertheless, the rate of new screens appearing this year decreased by 15% compared with the same period last year. More than 9,000 were added in 2018.

Per film averages also dropped, as there were 246 films released in the first six months, 18 more than the same period a year before. But just six of those — three imported titles (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Bumblebee” and “Captain Marvel”) and three Chinese titles (“The Wandering Earth,” “Crazy Alien” and “Pegasus”) — had earning that broke the RMB1 billion ($145 million) threshold. Just 42 (16 local and 26 imported) broke the RMB100 million ($14.5 million) mark.

Overall, local Chinese films saw their relative performance weaken compared to imported ones in the first six months. Chinese films accounted for 47.5% of the total box office, with earnings of RMB14.8 billion ($2.15 billion). This marked a decline of RMB1.7 billion ($247 million) from the year before.

Chinese reports noted with concern that only one Chinese film has topped the monthly box office so far this year — February’s sci-fi hit “The Wandering Earth.” 

The Chinese market overcame a dismal January with more robust sales in February’s hot Chinese New Year period, during which “The Wandering Earth” led in ticket sales to gross a whopping $691 million and become the country’s second most successful film of all time. In March, Taiwanese romantic melodrama “More Than Blue” led with $140 million. “Avengers: Endgame” broke records in April and May with its $614 million haul, single handedly accounting for 55% of China’s total box office in April. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and the opening weekend of “Spider-Man: Far From Home” propped up the box office in June.

It wa snot only the Chinese titles that underperformed. Several of the anticipated Hollywood titles also failed to live up to expectations. They included “Shazam!,” “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” “Men in Black: International,” “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin.”

This bodes poorly for the rest of the summer, particularly after government interference pushed back releases for two of the season’s most hotly anticipated films, war epic “The Eight Hundred” and youth drama “Better Days.”

Last summer, China had five films that made over RMB1 billion ($145 million), but it will be difficult to match that tally in 2019. Only 58 are scheduled for release this July and August, a sharp decrease from 77 films last year, according to Maoyan. Among local films, big budget contenders include sci-fi film “Shanghai Fortress” and Bona’s firefighting rescue flick “The Bravest,” but almost no others.

Several weeks in July and August are in many years unofficial blackout months during which China protects its local industry by halting imports of foreign fare. But unusually, numerous U.S. titles are lined up this year. They include “The Secret Life of Pets 2” on July 5, “The Lion King” on July 12, “Fighting with My Family” on July 19, “UglyDolls” on August 9, and the Universal-distributed “Yesterday” on August 16.

China has announced theatrical runs for “The Angry Birds Movie 2” and “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” but not yet set release dates. It remains to be seen whether Quentin Tarantino’s Bona-backed “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which debuts stateside July 26, will hit the Chinese big screen.

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