Recovery of Chinese cinema a chance for all
Published: Nov 14, 2023 11:13 PM

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xiangya/Global Times

China's film authority on Tuesday night announced the box office in China in 2023 has so far exceeded 50 billion yuan ($6.85 billion). Breaking it down, the box office of domestic films reached 41.7 billion yuan, accounting for 83.4 percent.

Although it looks unlikely for the box office this year to reach pre-pandemic 2019's 64 billion yuan, this shows the Chinese film market is on the path of quick recovery and has great potential for expansion.

However, does Hollywood still stand a chance to seize the Chinese market as the report shows that the top 10 films this year are all domestic films?

Following The Marvels premiere in the Chinese mainland over the weekend, another four Hollywood films are gearing up for a packed release period in Chinese theaters in mid-November and December.

It is worth nothing that the five Hollywood films are familiar to Chinese moviegoers, which might capture higher attention and further benefit the two film markets.

On November 17, Lionsgate's The Hunger Games: Songbird and the Snake will have its global premiere. The Hunger Games franchise once captured the hearts of many Chinese moviegoers with its breathtaking story and the excellent performance of the cast. 

Disney's new film, Wish, will debut on November 22 in North America and November 24 in the Chinese mainland. Though this is a new Disney story for the Chinese audience, the high popularity of actress Liu Yifei, who voices the protagonist Asha in the Chinese dub, may help the film see a bullish performance.

December 8 will see the release of Warner Bros and Heyday Films' Wonka, the prequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though the original film did not get released in the Chinese mainland, the film's solid reputation makes it well known among many Chinese moviegoers. Meanwhile, the lead, Hollywood heartthrob Timothee Chalamet, has earned a lot of Chinese fans with his previous works Little Women and Dune.

Warner Bros and DC sequel Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom has also been granted a December 20 release. The first film, Aquaman, once grossed 2.13 billion yuan in the Chinese mainland. Such a satisfying result might be challenging for the second sequel to topple amid the franchise erosion, especially for a superhero series. 

This can be seen in the current release of The Marvels, which opened with only 83.86 million yuan ($11.5 million) in Chinese theaters, according to Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan. The franchise starter Captain Marvel once grossed 1.04 billion yuan in 2019, the year MCU films reached their box office peak. The Hollywood Reporter has predicted that The Marvels will be lucky to top $20 million, or 146 million yuan, in the mainland.

It seems that after the release of Avengers: Endgame, which set a box office record of 4.25 billion yuan in 2019, the Chinese audiences bid farewell to American superhero movies. 

Since the outbreak of global pandemic, the endless stream of superhero films has caused fatigue among the audience. The poor performance of MCU's Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) shows this. 

The end of the pandemic has brought more Hollywood films back to the Chinese mainland, but with the rise of Chinese films and the falling status of Hollywood, the mega film companies might think about producing more original stories that cater to some hot social topics rather than being trapped with tedious superhero franchises. 

For example, Warner Bros' Barbie, shining a spotlight on women and their social anxieties, earned a healthy 252 million yuan in the Chinese mainland as the theme struck a chord with many cosmopolitan Chinese women. 

Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer earned 449 million yuan, the director's second-best China performance to date behind Interstellar (876 million yuan). Though it is a lengthy historical drama that takes place in the US, a lot of Chinese audiences couldn't help recall the unforgettable history of World War II while watching the story about the atomic bomb.

This phenomenon reveals that when foreign language films can find stories that resonate with Chinese audiences, they are more willing to buy in. 

With the boom in Chinese cultural confidence, more high-quality domestic films are sure to dominate the Chinese film market. However, Hollywood will definitely remain the biggest introducer of foreign language films and has potential to earn a big chunk.

Cooperation between the world's two largest film markets may also be a win-win strategy, such as co-producing films like Meg 2: The Trench, which earned the title of Best China and US Cooperation Film at the recently concluded 19th Chinese American Film Festival and the Chinese American Television Festival.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.