Under The Light

China Market Update: Mainstream Recovery, Marvel & Main Melody Fatigue, Chinese Indies & Streamers

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Hardly anyone in North America or Europe seems interested in working with mainland China’s film and TV industries these days. Even before China retreated behind a literal and metaphorical wall during the pandemic, too many fingers had been burned, too many deals never materialised and too many projects scuppered by censorship for anyone to keep this market as an integral part of a business plan.

These sentiments were made even clearer to me last week when I attended TCCF in Taipei, where the film industries of France, Japan and Korea all appeared more interested in working with Taiwan as a funding partner and entry point into Chinese-language content. As the Mandarin-speaking island gears up for an election in January 2024, the current DPP government is spending generously on supporting its own creative industries as well as forging cooperation with the rest of the world (more on Taiwan in the next edition of Streamlined).

So why is this edition of Streamlined focusing on China? Because here’s the thing – China is still the world’s biggest theatrical market outside of North America and it isn’t going anywhere. Although the regulatory environment remains challenging and it would be unwise to count on anything China-related, there are still many producers, filmmakers, investors, buyers and programmers in this market who continue to look beyond China’s borders.

As US President Joe Biden sits down with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the APEC Summit in San Francisco this week, it seems as good a time as any to look at a few recent developments in this market.

China’s Theatrical Recovery Has Been Impressive..

Back in August, I wrote about how China’s summer box office was on fire with a string of local hits, although Hollywood movies were faring less well. While the recent National Day holiday period was softer than expected, the market is still in full recovery mode and box office for the year to date reached $6.9bn last weekend, according to figures from Artisan Gateway, which is 78% ahead of the same point last year, and only 14% down on this point in the pre-pandemic year of 2019. Hits over the National Day holidays included Zhang Yimou’s crime drama Under The Light [PICTURED ABOVE], which grossed $186m, and romantic comedy The Ex-Files 4: Marriage Plan, which took $137m.

Box office in any part of the world usually defies macroeconomic indicators to perform well during times of economic hardship, as movie-going is a relatively cheap activity, especially in China where online ticketing platforms Maoyan and Taopiaopiao discount ticket prices heavily. On the other hand, Chinese consumers continue to be squeezed by a slowing economy, high unemployment and a heavily indebted property market, so may not be willing to keep spending once the novelty of consuming entertainment outside of the home wears off.

Key to continued recovery is the strength of the film line-up, and so far there appears to be plenty of gas left in the tank for the rest of 2023, with new films from popular directors Gao Qunshu, Cao Baoping and Xin Yukun and Hong Kong-China co-productions I Did It My Way and The Goldfinger, both starring Andy Lau. Ning Hao’s The Movie Emperor, in which Lau plays a send-up of himself, has been pushed back into Chinese New Year 2024. US studio releases scheduled for the last few months of 2023 include Wonka and Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom.

The Marvels

..But Hollywood Is Still Getting The Cold Shoulder

Earlier this week, online ticketing giant Maoyan announced that China’s box office had surpassed RMB50bn ($6.9bn) in 2023, and was trumpeting the fact that the 11 highest-grossing films of the year so far are all local productions (see chart below), giving local content an 83.4% market share. According to Maoyan figures, the highest-grossing Hollywood movie of 2023 is Fast X, which came in at number 12 with $137m. More US studio films have been getting the all-clear since a changing of the guard at the China Film Bureau earlier this year. But Hollywood doesn’t appear again in the 2023 chart until Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts, which is ranking at number 24 with $90m (RMB655m). The Marvels had a disappointing opening last weekend, coming in at number two behind local crime drama Last Suspect.

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