Imported films accounted for only about a sixth of China’s total box office in 2020, a nearly 55% decrease year-on-year, industry data tracker Maoyan Entertainment said Monday. The decline highlights the chaos COVID-19 has wrought on Hollywood release schedules as well as the diminishing appeal of foreign content in what has just become the world’s largest film market.
While foreign films accounted for 38% of China’s annual box office in 2018 and 35.9% last year, they made up just 16.3% of total ticket sales this year, a sharp decline, Maoyan said in a year-end report.
Moviegoers bought a total of 548 million tickets in China in 2020. The country’s total box office in 2020 hit $3.13 billion (RMB20.4 billion) surpassing North America in December to become the world’s largest movie market, despite that tally marking a drop of 68.2% from the $9.2 billion box office last year and a 66.5% decline from 2018.
In comparison, North America’s total box office revenue plummeted to $2.28 billion, a more than 80% decline from the $11.4 billion gross of 2019, according to Comscore.
Foreign movies had their best China month this year in September, grossing $132 million (RMB853 million), and their worst month in October, when authorities blacked out foreign releases to make way for patriotic local blockbusters celebrating the National Day holiday, earning a tenth that, or $13.9 million (RMB89.9 million).
The data for 2020 was of course immensely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered Chinese cinemas nationwide for 178 days between Jan. 23 and July 20. Authorities first re-opened theaters at 30% capacity, before loosening restrictions to allow 50% capacity on Aug. 14 and finally 75% capacity on Sept. 25, as the country got its COVID-19 situation increasingly under control.
“In the international movie marketplace in general and China in particular, the two key factors contributing to the reemergence of the box office in the midst of the pandemic comes down to how effectively health-related protocols are adhered to, and the appeal and availability of local movie product,” said Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
“It sounds simple, but cracking the code on how to balance the safety of moviegoers while simultaneously offering great movies that will draw patrons is indeed a very complex and tough balancing act that has vexed many in the industry in countries around the globe” this year, he added.
Chinese theaters have grossed $2.8 billion (RMB18 billion) since that July 20 re-opening. The most popular genres have been historical war dramas, as well as feel-good comedy and romance.
To control operational costs, theaters have reduced non-prime time screenings, Maoyan pointed out. Since resuming business, cinemas have scheduled 26.6% of total screenings for prime slots between 6pm and 9pm, an increase of 24.3% from the same period last year.
Chinese movie-goers are on average younger than North American ones, with the average age of 28.8 this year. Only 11% of Chinese ticket buyers in 2020 were over the age of 40.
Generally speaking, however, Chinese viewers are less in the habit of going to the cinema than those in other countries, such as neighboring South Korea. They watched on average 1.73 theatrical films this year, a decline from 2.88 the year before and 3.06 in 2018. This drop was in large part due to prolonged cinema closures and reduced numbers of new releases.
Director Guan Hu has been the Chinese local industry’s clear MVP. His film “The Eight Hundred” was the world’s highest grossing film of the year, earning more than $460 million. Together with “The Sacrifice,” a propaganda film set during the Korean War that he jointly directed, Hu’s two films accounted for about a fifth of China’s total annual box office — more than all foreign titles combined.
China reported 158 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the last week of 2020, while the U.S. reported 1.32 million.