Despite nearly six months of cinema closures due to COVID-19, China actually built nearly 6,000 more new screens in 2020, according to a new report from the country’s film authorities.

The data contradicts the disastrous predictions made over the summer about the extent to which the pandemic would devastate the Chinese exhibition sector.

China now boasts 75,581 screens nationwide at some 12,700 complexes, having built 5,794 more screens last year, said the National Office for Special Film Funds, a committee under the direct management of the powerful Central Propaganda Department made up of cadres from that body and the Ministry of Finance. Growth did slow, however: to compare, China built around 9,700 new screens in both 2019 and 2018. It began 2020 with around 69,800 screens at some 12,400 complexes.

Things were looking much bleaker in June, by which time Chinese movie theaters had been closed for five months. Conducted by local film industry associations, a mid-2020 survey of nearly 200 cinemas indicated that 40% felt they were “very likely to close” in the near future — a percentage which would have equated to a loss of nearly 28,000 screens, should it have come to fruition.

At least 2,300 cinema complexes permanently closed in the first two months of COVID-19 shutdowns, equivalent to 12,000 screens or nearly 20% of the country’s theatrical release capacity, the consultancy Artisan Gateway estimated to Variety at the time.

The Special Film Fund data shows that while the country built nearly 6,000 new screens, it gained only a net 300 complexes. That points to the pandemic wiping out smaller venues, even as plans to build new, bigger multiplexes went ahead. This would square with views that China’s exhibition sector, plagued by overcapacity, is experiencing a degree of consolidation.

Artisan Gateway head Rance Pow explained to Variety how screen counts could rise amidst mass closures due to lack of film supply, financial strain, and other pandemic-related factors. It was not surprising that the development of new venues proceeded even amidst a “significant number” of closures, given the common practice in the commercial real industry to proceed once investment funding is already committed, he explained. 

“As the market reopened, some — but, to our knowledge, not specifically reported — cinemas were able to reopen through financial restructuring, operational adaptation,” and other tactics, he said. “Add to that newly developed cinemas, and it’s plausible cinema count in the market could rise.” 

The U.S. had 40,998 screens in 2020, 174 less than in 2019 but 161 more than in 2018, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Top Cinema Chains and Films in 2020

In 2020, Wanda Cinemas held its position as the market’s leading cinema chain in terms of both admissions (78 million) and box office ($488 million, or RMB3.15 billion). It did not, however, boast the largest number of theaters. That title was held by rival Guangdong Dadi, which has 65.5% more cinemas (a total of 1,172), but grossed 38% less in sales, or $303 million.

Behind Dadi and ahead of fifth place Wanda, China Film Digifilm Cinemas, Shenzhen-based China Film South, and Hongliyu Cinema round out the list of China’s top five exhibitors by venue count. Shanghai United Circuit came in sixth and Hengdian Cinemas seventh.

Trailing Wanda in China’s top five box office-generating cinema chains were, in order, Dadi, Shanghai United Circuit, China Film Digifilm, and China Film South. Half of the top 10 earning individual cinemas in the country were in Beijing, with China’s most money-making theater, the Beijing Capital Cinema in Xidan district, pulling in $3 million in sales.

The report also officially confirmed overall annual stats previously released by private-sector firms tracking industry data like Maoyan and Alibaba.

China’s total box office was $3.2 billion (RMB20.4 billion) in 2020, a decrease of more than 68% year-on-year, but still enough to surpass the U.S. in an unconventional year to become the world’s largest film market.

Last year marked the first time in Chinese film history that the top 10 films in China were all local movies. Foreign films accounted for just 16% ($512 million) of total national box office, while local films accounted for 84%, or $2.6 billion (RMB17 billion). In contrast, foreign imports made up 36% of the box office in 2019.

The top five films were: the war film “The Eight Hundred”; propaganda flick “My People, My Homeland”; animation “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification”; propaganda war film “The Sacrifice”; and Peter Chan’s jingoistic volleyball film “Leap.”

The top ten performing foreign films were, in order: “Tenet,” “The Croods: A New Age,” Disney’s live-action “Mulan,” 2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Dolittle,” Japan’s “Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna,” Christopher Nolan’s 2014 “Interstellar,“ “Spies in Disguise,” and “Hellboy.” Only 45 of the top 100 grossing films of 2020 in China were imports.

Movie-Going By Time of Year and Region

The report also provided data on when in the year Chinese movie-goers flocked to the cinema.

Far more tickets were sold in October than in any other month last year. October sales of $985 million (RMB6.36 billion) accounted for more than 31% of the annual box office. The second strongest month was December, with sales accounting for 18.5% of the annual total.

The strong October showing was due to the National Day holiday release window, which was nevertheless weaker than it had been in 2019. The holiday period achieved a box office of $615 million (RMB3.97 billion) last year from 100 million admissions at 2.8 million screenings.

Caps on maximum cinema capacity due to COVID-19 appear to have taken their toll: in 2019, the box office for the same October holiday period grossed some $76 million more than 2020, with 118 million more admissions at 200,000 fewer screenings.

Further stats painted a picture of where in the country movie-going is most popular, and most lucrative.

Guangdong Province generated the most box office last year, thanks to $401 million (RMB2.59 billion) in sales. Behind it were Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Sichuan provinces, with the cities of Shanghai and Beijing in fourth and fifth, having sold $180 million and $160 million of tickets, respectively.

The regions that saw the least box office in the country were notably those home to large ethnic minority populations: Inner Mongolia, Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Tibet, which came in last with an annual box office of just $5.4 million.

Not surprisingly, the low sales correspond to low numbers of cinemas in these regions. There are only 41 cinemas in Tibet, 103 in Hainan, and 178 in Xinjiang.