Topping the Charts: Chinese Cinema in 2018

Chinese cinema in 2018 was very intense, bursting with cinematic records and curiosities. The box office posted another record year with takings of CNY 60 billion, popular films expanded their reach and explored new genres, word of mouth became one of the determining factors in the success of many films, a new generation of directors arrived town, and there was a greater variety of languages to be found in big screen releases. 
But 2018 was also a turbulent year which was rocked by scandal, and by the restrictive measures on tax incentives in the provinces, something which contributed to a kind of paralysis in the film industry. The industry and the market need to adapt to the effects of the extraordinary developments of the past few years, although the problems they are encountering may just be a hiccup before consolidation.

According to data provided by The Chinese Film Market Magazine and Movie View International, two specialist film market analysis magazines, the 2018 box office reached a record high of CNY 60 billion – a figure that had already been predicted in 2016. It recorded a total of CNY 60.7 billion (about US$9.34 billion), an increase of 8.6 per cent compared to 2017, when takings were CNY 55.87 billion (US$8.9 billion). Last year, 517 films were distributed on the big screen, a lower figure than in 2017, which saw the release of 536 films. Of these 517 films, 393 (76 per cent) were national productions or co-productions, 124 were imported (that’s 17 more than last year), and these made up 24 per cent of the total. Imported films – of non-Chinese nationality – continue to be distributed in limited numbers, but alternative distribution models mean that their number increases each year.

Of the 124 films, 40 were imported in accordance with the revenue-sharing model, 81 according to the buy-out or flat fee model (78 of these were of non-Chinese nationality and three were from Hong Kong). Three were imported via the limited distribution model of the Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinema circuit, the official circuit inaugurated in Changchun in 2016 which aims to import auteur films with box-office potential. Exactly 60.3 per cent of the total box-office is made up of takings from nationally produced films and co-productions, and that figure comes from 76 per cent of the total number of films hitting the big screen. 
Imported films, which account for 24 per cent of the total number of films distributed in theatres, accounted for 39.7 per cent of the box-office total. Box-office statistics in 2018 get even more interesting, the deeper we delve into them: in 2018, there were a total of 110.9 million projections, an increase of 17.24 per cent, and total admissions reached 1.72 billion, an increase of 5.87 per cent, compared to 2017. The number of film theatres reached 10,466, which is 1459 more than in 2017, equalling a growth of 12.2 per cent, while the 60,079 screens increased by 16.6 per cent. Ticket prices rose by 2.6 per cent, an average of CNY35 (around US$5.4) per ticket. The percentage of tickets sold online was 84.5 per cent, through platforms such as Maoyan, which, after the merger with Weiying, dominated the market with 52.5 per cent, and Tao Piao Piao with 34.4 per cent.

The increase in average ticket prices does not seem to have affected box-office results. But it is also true that since their launch, online cinema ticket sales platforms have been offering the public discounted prices compared to the cost of tickets purchased directly at the cinema. It should be noted, however, that 84.5 per cent of sales are made to a young audience that is used to making online purchases. So the market has to deal with a potential audience segment that is not accustomed to buying online, and could stop going to the cinema in view of higher ticket prices.

In general, growth in 2018 seems to have been downsized, with percentages striking a balance between the various factors that in recent years have affected market expansion. In 2018, 86 films crossed the near-legendary threshold of CNY 100 million (about US$15 million), 47 of which were national productions or co-productions; 39 of them were imported. Of these, 10 films exceeded 1.5 billion CNY (about US$223.6 million), seven films had takings of somewhere between 1 billion to 1.5 billion CNY, 16 films between CNY 500 million and 1 billion, and 53 films had takings totalling between CNY 100 and 500 million. As a percentage, films in the Top 50 make up 82.39 per cent of the total box-office takings. In the general ranking of Top 10 films in 2018, four are local productions, two are co-productions and four are non-Chinese imports, equalling a total of 40.18 per cent of the overall box-office receipts.

Director Dante Lam’s action and war film Operation Red Sea, a Bona Film Group and Emperor Motion Pictures co-production with an astronomical budget of US$70 million, was crowned box-office champ of the year, with revenues of CNY 3.65 billion (about US$561.5 million). It took third place on the podium after Wolf Warriors 2, by director Wu Jing, whose record last year (the highest box office revenue of 2017, and in the history of the box-office in China with takings of CNY 5.68 billion/US$890 million) still stands. Not to forget The Wandering Earth by director Frant Gwo, the phenomenal Chinese sci-fi based on the novel of the same name by writer Liu Cixin. It was released in theatres during the Lunar New Year 2019, and is still raking in the profits at the box-office as we write.

Taking second place in the overall ranking, the comedy Detective Chinatown 2 from director Chen Sicheng was the box-office champion in February. Released in cinemas during the Lunar New Year holidays, it was the second chapter of the series which began in 2015. In third place was July’s biggest earner, Dying to Survive. Wen Muye’s debut feature, produced by actor Xu Zheng and director Ning Hao for the production company Dirty Monkey, was based on the true story of a leukaemia patient who illegally imported low-cost medicines from India for thousands of patients who, like him, could not afford the costly treatment offered by local clinics and pharmaceutical companies. The film hit the spot with the Chinese public, fuelling a debate on the sensitive issue of healthcare costs. Another comedy took fourth place: Hello, Mr. Billionaire, which was jointly directed by Yan Fei and Peng Damo, who were also behind 2015’s successful comedy, Goodbye Mr. Loser. The film is loosely based on the American comedy Brewster’s Millions by Walter Hill.

Avengers: Infinity War could not fail to place in the Top 10. The sci-fi film, which was the box-office champion for the month of May, finished in fifth place, followed closely by Monster Hunt 2, by Edko Films, and directed by Raman Hui. Takings for that came in at CNY 2.24 billion (about US$344.6 million). Venom, November’s top-ranked film, came in at seventh place. In 2018, 26 sci-fi films were released in cinemas. Aquaman, December’s highest grosser, finished eighth, while Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom took ninth place. Ready Player One closed the Top 10. Of the six Hollywood majors, Warner Bros. was the highest earner, grossing CNY 5.41 billion (about US$832.31 million) with the distribution of seven films, followed by Walt Disney Pictures, which grossed CNY 4.99 billion (about US$767.69 million). Competing for a slice of the box-office pie in 2018 were 14 films from Japan, eight films from India, 10 films from France and six films from Russia

Friday, February 16th was the day that registered the highest box-office takings of the year – CNY 1.27 billion – when three films were released simultaneously, all of which made the annual Top 6: Operation Red Sea, Detective Chinatown 2 and Monster Hunt 2. This confirmed, once again, that the most popular genres in China are action, comedy and fantasy, and that the Lunar New Year holiday is the period that determines the success of many films, as it attracts a wide range of the public from different social groups, and entire families.

There were a series of important directorial debuts in 2018: Wen Muye debuted with the social realism comedy Dying to Survive; Huang Bo, the actor in many successful comedies by Ning Hao, debuted with the fantasy comedy The Island; Rene Liu, actress-singer-writer, debuted with the romantic drama Us and Them; and Bai Xue made the brilliant coming-of-age film The Crossing. The winner of the New Currents Award at the Busan International Film Festival was Cui Siwei with the thriller Savage. New directors are making inroads with stories that challenge a new and increasingly demanding audience on the hunt for quality films.

Market analysis clearly shows how audiences in China are slowly but surely influencing the kinds of films that appear on the big screen. They are curious about films of different styles and content, auteur productions, and movies that pick up nominations at the Oscars or at prestigious festivals. 2019 has already seen director Frant Gwo’s sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth rake in the earnings at the box-office. He made his mark in 2014 with the romantic comedy My Old Classmate. Director Ning Hao’s fantasy comedy Crazy Aliens is also vying for a place in the 2019 Top 10, as is director Han Han’s dramatic Pegasus, which marks Han Han’s return to directing after the success of Duckweed in 2017.

Although new reforms and regulations to contain and consolidate the industry and the market are planned for this year, Chinese cinema still looks like it will have a soaring Year of the Pig.
Maria Ruggieri