Hollywood film franchises such as “xXx,” “Warcraft” and “Resident Evil” used to be largely sustained by their box office performance in China, which significantly exceeded their North American hauls and drove global grosses. Frequently, Hollywood titles would dominate the Chinese box office charts during most weeks.
But in recent years, that tide has been turning. In 2018, Hollywood topped the local B.O. over 25 weekends, closely followed by Chinese-made winners, which conquered 22 weekends. Now, the studios are struggling for traction in what has become the world’s single largest theatrical market.
In the first eight months of 2021, Hollywood titles have been chart toppers on just eight occasions, driven by an ageing “Fast and the Furious” franchise, and over two weeks by a rereleased “Avatar.” Hollywood’s share of the China box office market in 2021 has collapsed to a shocking 9.5%, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway.
This year, there are only two U.S. pictures in China’s top-15 rankings. In contrast, the top two films at the global box office so far this year are China’s “Hi Mom” on $822 million, and “Detective Chinatown 3” on $686 million, ahead of “F9: The Fast Saga” with $681 million.
“[COVID aside] this year would have been a difficult time for import films and Hollywood in particular,” says Artisan Gateway principal Rance Pow. “The Chinese films that have been popular have become very popular and on top by quite some distance.”
But it wasn't always this way. The modern-day Chinese film industry is still relatively young and grew up alongside a Hollywood market share that reached 50% in some years.
However, the government has done its best to keep U.S. titles in check. A system of import controls exercises quota allocations; blackout periods often cordon off three or four prime seasons per year for Chinese-language film releases; and the use of a censorship approval system diminishes pre-release marketing to just a few weeks.
There hasn't been a single significant Hollywood release in China since “A Quiet Place Part II” on May 28 and "Luca" on Aug. 20. Meanwhile, Disney-Marvel titles haven't been released in China since “Avengers: Endgame” in April 2019. In fact, “Black Widow” still remains without a release permit in China.
Since the pandemic struck, the supply of Hollywood movies into China has been thin and sharply out of synch with China’s V-shaped economic recovery which started in mid-2020. Industry sources have told Variety that revenue share quota slots remain available — an almost unprecedented situation.
In a late July filing, IMAX China indicated that audiences have returned to Chinese theaters, and particularly IMAX theaters, in numbers approximating pre-pandemic attendance levels, but they're there for Chinese-language films and the handful of Hollywood films that were available. "The delay of certain Hollywood film release dates impacted IMAX's Hollywood films box office,” reads the filing.
However, the release hiatus, combined with the studios’ experimentation with day-and-date theatrical-streaming releases, has caused all U.S. summer titles to be heavily pirated. The weak $5 million debut of “Luca” is a prime example.
Changing local tastes drive support for Chinese fare
Just as concerning from a Hollywood point of view have been changes in audience structure and taste. It's widely believed that as Chinese exhibitors have built theaters in smaller towns and cities, they have addressed a more local market and diluted the population that's likely to watch foreign movies. At the same time, Chinese movie-making has become more sophisticated, more blockbuster-driven and backed by bigger budgets. Prodded by central government, mainland Chinese filmmakers have reached into previously off-limit genres.
That means Hollywood is no longer the only purveyor of well-packaged action and sci-fi movies, or franchises built around other forms of proven IP, such as comics, TV or streaming series and games.
Concurrently, China’s 'main melody' titles — nationalistic fare that emphasizes Socialist values — have also raised their game. Flooding out from private sector studios and employing established filmmakers, many are premium productions with stars and stellar production values that deliver real audience appeal.
Ultimately, whether or not Hollywood’s recent troubles are COVID-related or more systemic, U.S. studios have struggled to participate in the rebound that got underway in July 2020 after China’s cinemas had been closed for five and a half months.
The recovery accelerated in September when cinema capacity restrictions were eased from 50% to 75%, and China became the first theatrical market to reach operational normality, according to U.K.-based researcher Gower Street Analytics. Activity was sustained at a high level until June 2021, when attendance levels began to fall noticeably short of 2019 levels, due in part to dwindling Hollywood fare, an over-saturation of political movies and movie theater restrictions.
Politics will impact next chapter
What happens next depends on a series of political factors. The already unusually long summer blackout period could be stretched until after the Oct. 1 National Day festivities. That would have the effect of squeezing any remaining Hollywood films into the last three months of the year.
Movies that may be at risk include “The Eternals," directed by Chloé Zhao, who was branded a traitor for her past comments; “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," where Disney may not have done enough to diffuse charges of racism; “Space Jam: A New Legacy," because American basketball continues to be a sensitive subject following an NBA official’s 2019 comments on Hong Kong; and “Top Gun," which is seen as promoting the U.S. military.
The political standoff between China and the U.S. has already gummed up film industry negotiations. Now there's the possibility that, in a tit-for-tat move following U.S. moves against ZTE, TikTok and Huawei, China may be deliberately hobbling one of America’s biggest export industries. Several seemingly uncontroversial Hollywood titles are without release approvals or dates, including “Jungle Cruise” and “The Suicide Squad.” Sci-fi spectacular “Dune” has the advantage of being backed by the Wanda-owned Legendary Entertainment, but some online commentators are still cool about its prospects.
Possibly the most complicated calculation is whether policy or economics will guide the Chinese government’s thinking about the film industry through the last third of the year.
The National Radio & Television Administration is understood to have set a box office target of RMB60 billion ($9.23 billion at current exchange rates) for this year. That's largely the same as 2018’s score of RMB60.7 billion and the RMB64.3 billion achieved in 2019, when Chinese-language titles earned a combined RMB41.2 billion.
Since June, cumulative national box office is now running some 24% below 2019 levels, at $4.93 billion to Aug. 15. With new outbreaks of COVID-19 prompting reinstated cinema restrictions and the postponement of a couple of major local titles, that target looks to be almost out of reach.
Regulators will have to decide whether to help China’s cinema chains by allowing more Hollywood imports, or whether, in this politically sensitive year, the U.S. should be kept at bay, even if that means a box office stumble.
Such a scenario would, in turn, raise new questions in Hollywood: if China becomes an unreliable partner, why would Chinese factors need to be taken into consideration at the greenlight stage?