The Chinese box office in 2015 registered a growth of 48.7 per cent, and this inspired hopes that the 2016 box-office would reach 60 billion RMB (US$8.64 billion). But that was not to be. 2016 didn’t manage to maintain the market growth of the last few years and the industry grew by only 3.73 per cent. Stephen Chow’s romantic environmental comedy The Mermaid instilled some positivity into the scene – it was an overwhelming box-office success, with takings of 3.39 billion RMB (around US$527 million). It even beat the previous box-office record, set in 2015 by Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt. But there wasn’t any more good news. Something has changed, and the whys and wherefores for that are very varied.

According to figures from the China Film Bureau, the 2016 box-office was 45.67 billion RMB (around US$6.58 billion), an increase of 3.73 per cent on the previous year, where the total takings were 44 billion RMB. Around 58 per cent of the total box-office takings was generated by locally produced films. Ten films broke through the one billion RMB ceiling, seven of which were wholly Chinese, or co-productions with either Hong Kong or Hollywood. In the meantime, 84 films took over 100 million RMB.
The second most successful film, after The Mermaid, was Zootopia, from Walt Disney Animation. It took 1.53 billion RMB (US$235 million), making it the most successful animated movie ever in China. It also means that Disney, thanks to distribution deals for films like Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Doctor Strange, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Moana, and The BFG, was the highest earner (with 6 billion RMB) of the seven Hollywood studios.
2016 was also the year that had the biggest number of imported films: 95 non-Chinese films totalled around 19 billion RMB. Thirty-six of them were released under the revenue-sharing agreement, and 59 of them were flat-fee deals. Three foreign films exceeded the billion RMB mark – Zootopia, Captain America: Civil War, and Legendary Pictures’ Warcraft, whose phenomenal success in China helped the producers get over the disappointment of it flopping in other countries.

The most popular genres remain fantasy, comedy, action, and animation. As befitted the year of the monkey, the creature helped to fill cinema seats in 2016. Monkey is the main character in the classic of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. Monkey showed up in the fantasy-action movie The Monkey King 2, by director Cheang Pou-soi, who made the first part of the series in 2014. The film, produced by Filmko, and featuring a magnificent Gong Li in the role of Baigujing, the White Bone Demon, brought in 1.2 billion RMB. The producers have already announced the release of The Monkey King 3 for Lunar New Year 2018.

The action movie Operation Mekong, directed by Dante Lam and produced by Bona Film Group, overturned all predictions with takings of 1.184 billion RMB. The story’s based on an incident which took place in 2011 on the Mekong River. Two Chinese merchant ships were attacked, and all the crew killed by pirates who control the part of the river known as the Golden Triangle. China signed an agreement with Burma, Thailand, and Laos to carry out a joint investigation into the incident, and sent a military task force to patrol the river. The plot centres on the work of the task force in that region.

Another returning hit is the action comedy The Man from Macau 3 (aka From Vegas To Macau 3), by directors Andrew Lau and Wong Jing. Produced by the Bona Film Group and Media Asia Films, it features a stellar cast led by Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau, and Nick Cheung. A 1.118 billion RMB take established it as a box-office mainstay, and it confirmed the success of the first two chapters in the series.
It’s interesting to note that the Chinese films that brought in the most spectators in 2016 – The Mermaid, The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas To Macau 3 – were all released to coincide with the Lunar New Year. Produced by the Shanghai Film Group and Le Vision Pictures, the adventure fantasy Time Raiders, directed by Daniel Lee and based on the book series Grave Robbers’ Chronicles by Xu Lei, earned one billion RMB. The literary series was a phenomenon, and created a market for stories which combine the desecration of tombs with supernatural elements.
Kung-fu Panda 3, a China-Hollywood co-production between Dreamworks Animation and Oriental Dreamworks (whose studios are based in Shanghai), did not disappoint. It took one billion RMB, although that figure is lower than the previous parts of the same series. The film was released in two versions, English and dubbed Chinese.
Skiptrace, the comedy-action movie directed by Finnish director Renny Harlin, and produced, starring and based on story written by Jackie Chan, earned a respectable 889 billion RMB. Zhang Yibai, a much-loved director thanks to his films Spring Subway (2002), Curiosity Killed The Cat (2006) and Fleet of Times (2014), returned behind the cameras with a rom-com produced by Enlight Pictures. Called Belonged to You, and adapted from the collection of short stories by Zhang Jiajia, it quickly earned 814 million RMB in a few days. 

The short-story author, Zhang Jiajia, made a notable directorial debut with the rom-com See You Tomorrow. A co-production between China and Hong Kong, and produced by Wong Kar-wai’s Jet Tone and Alibaba Pictures, it was inspired by a collection of short stories, Passing From Your World. But despite being released during the Christmas period, and the presence of stars of the calibre of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Angelababy, Eason Chan, and Sandrinne Pinna, the film only made 287 million RMB which was well below expectations.
The romantic film Book of Love (aka Finding Mr. Right 2), written and directed by Xue Xiaolu, repeated the success of the first Finding Mr. Right with takings of 787 million RMB. The tale, once again starring Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo, is not a follow-up to the first chapter, but is still inspired by the hunt for Mr Right.

Box office is not the only measure of the popularity of distributed films in China. The most sensational scandal of 2016 involved the film distribution system in China, especially the distributors of blockbuster hits, who were accused by the authorities of exaggerating the number of tickets sold, to inflate advertising revenues. The state news agency Xinhua covered the story, explaining how the fraudulent model adopted by the distributors was to “buy” tickets directly at the cinemas during the first few days of release. In 2015, the same accusation was aimed at the distributors of Monster Hunt and, at the start of 2016, Ip Man 3.
In the biggest global market, the astronomical box-office figures often mask what the public actually like to watch. Audience preferences can be found on social media, and online platforms, such as Douban (a popular social networking website for people posting content on cinema, literature and music), Maoyan and Gewara (popular ticket sales websites), and MTime (a portal for cinema, merchandise, online ticket sales and e-commerce).
Among the most popular films with the viewing public was Your Name by director Shinkai Makoto, the biggest Japanese 2-D animation film in China last year, and Big Fish & Begonia, the animated film by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, which reached the big screen after years of work, partly thanks to the support of fans who convinced Beijing Enlight Media to produce the film.
Abroad, the social satire I Am Not Madame Bovary, directed by Feng Xiaogang, was awarded the best film, and best female in a starring role for Fan Bingbing, at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2016. It surprised the public and critics by the refined way it told a story of a woman battling against bureaucracy to obtain justice. Despite being heavier than the director’s usual lightweight offerings, it was a box-office hit. But there was controversy about the box office results, which could have been far better had the theatre chain, Wanda, given more space and attention to the picture. Meanwhile, the youth drama Soul Mate by Derek Tsang was lauded as the best film about young people.
In 2016, 772 Chinese films were produced, and 95 non-Chinese movies were imported. A total of 588 films reached the big screen. 493 Chinese films earned 58 per cent of the take, while the 95 non-Chinese ones took 42 per cent. In the Top 20 list, there was an equal distribution of Chinese films and foreign ones. China’s box-office could never reach its dizzying heights without the presence of titles from Hollywood, co-productions with Hong Kong, and other imports. In much the same way, without the Chinese market, many films – especially Hollywood productions – would never see their earnings rocket to such heights.
The China-Hollywood connection is becoming closer, and The Great Wall, the first Legendary Entertainment co-production directed by Zhang Yimou, marked the first step in an important collaboration. It was the biggest co-production ever, with a budget over 150 million US dollars, aimed at the global market. Released on the big screen in mid-December 2016, in China its earnings of 170 million US dollars did not meet expectations, and the negative criticism it received cast a shadow over the future of this kind of co-production. It has created doubts that this kind of model can generate films for export. The Great Wall became a cause celebre, and attracted fierce criticism, including claims that it marked the end of the artistic career of Zhang Yimou. The general downward trend of the Chinese box-office in 2016 didn’t help, either.
The reasons behind this downturn of growth in the box-office in China were analysed, theorised and discussed from the moment it was noticed. It was a slow but sure decline. According to industry and market observers, it was caused by a combination of factors: weaker local productions, restrictive measures to combat fraud at the box-office, a reduction of the generous subsidies on ticket sales from the online platforms, a general weakening of the Chinese economy (which started to dip in 2015), and a more discerning Chinese audience.
The main reason, according to the State-run media, is the poor quality of locally-produced films. But the tendency of the specialist press to criticise films turned out to be an own goal. The negative reviews have now been targeted and highly criticized themselves. In the online version of the People’s Daily, the official organ of the government, an editorial defined the reviews as irresponsible, and the root cause of damage to the ecosystem of the country’s film industry. The atmosphere between the industry and the critics degenerated further when Maoyan removed the harshest reviews.

Film critics aside, the public remains the main focus of analysis of the industry and the market, and the downturn of takings at the box-office in 2016 increased attention on spectators and their preferences. What is popular in China? How to adapt it for the big screen? And if the public has evolved over the past few years, and become more refined in its tastes, what can pique their curiosity today?
The industry and the market cannot survive without a vast viewing public, and 2016 was the year of reckoning. In an attempt to reach as many spectators as possible, there was large-scale expansion in the theatre chains in tier two and three cities, as well as structured growth in tier four and five cities, where there was also state-subsidised support to improve screening conditions in rural areas.

An average of 26 new screens opened per day, making a total of 9,552 new screens throughout 2016, bringing the figure to 41,179 in China overall. 85 per cent of these have 3-D technology. According to the National Association of Film Theatre Owners, China has now overtaken the USA , which has 40,759 screens. Regular TV, internet TV and IPTV are reaching an increasing number of homes, offering feature film catalogues with a variety and quality never before seen.
The numbers of web film viewers has grown exponentially, with Tencent Video and iQiyi counting more than 20 million subscribers each, Youku boasting 30 million, and LeTV 50 million. The race to get seats filled in theatres has led to new, increasingly specialist film festivals. Beijing and Shanghai, with their mega film festivals, are no longer sufficient to take advantage of the great potential and diversity of the industry.
The interests and tastes of the public in the major cities is not representative of the country as a whole. For the past 10 years, in Xining the First Int’l Film Festival has screened independent films with the aim of discovering minor gems and new talent, while in Xi’an and Fuzhou, the Silk Road Int’l Film Festival presents an overview of films based on the theme of the legendary silk road. In the province of Zhejiang where the Hengdian Studios has been working at full force for years, the Youth Film Festival is now in its fourth year, dedicated to promoting new talent. The JUST Film Festival will be dedicated to the sci-fi genre.
The industry is trying to gauge the psychological profile of the public by studying the interests of fans of animated films, video games, TV series, or a particular auteur, as well as examining film and literature genres. In this effort to keep the industry active and make the market thrive, a very varied audience has been discovered. The key word that came to the fore in 2016, and which became part of the 2017 strategies, was “diversity”. 2016 witnessed more varied show times and greater variety in the distribution of film genres. There was personalisation of the calendar to take into account questions of geography, and a recognition that each individual theatre may have its own needs.
Auteur films, so frequently ‘boycotted’ by theatres for not being commercial enough, now flourish on the big screen, thanks to their diversity. Black Coal, Thin Ice by Diao Yinan, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2014, was released in China, earning over 100 million RMB. But few other films that have not been overtly commercial have been distributed in the theatres under such favourable conditions.

One of the biggest surprises of 2016 was the presence of Chinese films – those selected and/or which won awards at international film festival in the past few years – in the top earners list of the 588 distributed on the big screen. They include Kaili Blues by Bi Gan, Best New Director in the Concorso Cineasti del Presente, and What’s in The Darkness by Wang Yichun, which received its worldwide premier at the Xining First Int’l Film Festival, as well as the Generation 14-plus section at the Berlin Film Festival.
Even if these films only minimally increase the percentage of their viewing public, it can make an enormous difference for a film labelled as ‘uncommercial’. If artistic films gain a stronger foothold in China, the method of defining a commercial film will have to be totally redefined.

In the meantime, in the Year of the Rooster, a few titles have already earned over a billion RMB. There’s the action comedy Kung Fu Yoga – a Chinese-Indian co-production orchestrated by Jackie Chan and directed by Stanley Tong. Plus there’s that omnipresent Monkey in Journey to the West 2: The Demons Strike Back directed by Tsui Hark, and written and produced by Stephen Chow.
Duckweed is Han Han’s second outing behind the cameras – a blogger, writer, professional rally pilot, he is now making his mark as a director. There’s also the action comedy Buddies in India, the directorial debut of actor Wang Baoqiang, a major celebrity thanks to starring roles in hits such as A World Without Thieves (2004), Assembly (2007), Mr. Tree (2011), and Lost in Thailand (2012).
As for the future, now that the picture of popular cinema in China is changing, there are doubtlessly some exciting surprises just around the corner.

Maria Ruggieri