Country holds position for second year as domestic offerings boost ticket sales while audience numbers grow and more blockbusters are produced
Like the script of an action-packed movie, where the hero overcomes the odds to stand victorious, China has maintained its robust recovery momentum to retain the top spot as the world's largest movie market, both in terms of yearly box-office takings and in its overall number of screens.
With the country's effective measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, China saw its overall box-office takings reach around 47.3 billion yuan ($7.4 billion) in 2021, recovering to around 74 percent of its pre-pandemic levels two years ago, according to a report released by movie information tracer Beacon.
Latest statistics released by the China Film Administration, the country's top regulator of the sector, find that the ticket revenue earned by Chinese movies reached 39.9 billion yuan, accounting for 84.49 percent of the total box office last year, also the highest in history.
In November, the administration rolled out the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), setting a string of goals to meet its 2035 vision to build China into a strong cinematic power. With a total of 6,667 newly installed screens, China now boasts 82,248 screens, getting closer to one of the plan's most specified goals－surpassing 100,000 screens by 2025.
Despite facing more difficulties caused mainly by regional COVID-19 outbreaks, Chinese filmmakers have maintained a sizable output, producing a total of 740 films last year and selling 1.17 billion tickets, surpassing figures for 2020.
With China's huge home market, domestic blockbusters have also exerted more influence overseas. Three of the world's 10 top-grossing films last year were Chinese blockbusters, respectively The Battle at Lake Changjin on the second slot; Hi, Mom getting third and Detective Chinatown 3 coming sixth, according to film website Box Office Mojo.
Most industry insiders and analysts said 2021, which marks the first year of the plan, has witnessed a remarkable achievement, signaling a clearer direction for the future development of domestic movies.
Rise of patriotic works
In the early 1990s when China started to import Hollywood blockbusters, a major concern centered on how local talent with limited resources could compete.
The picture, literally, has completely changed. In line with the domestic audience's greater spending power and love of their own culture and history, more visually arresting blockbusters, based on real stories or movies delving into the country's history for plotlines, were released, collectively contributing to the emergence of what researchers call "new mainstream movies".
Exemplifying the latest and biggest such breakthrough, The Battle at Lake Changjin, reportedly the most expensive film ever made in China, has raked in, to date, an astounding box office of around 5.77 billion yuan since its release on Sept 30, reported China Film News.
An epic movie, marking Chinese People's Volunteers' courage and sacrifice during the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea (1950-53), it gathers a number of China's top film specialists and exemplifies the successful way to lure cinemagoers with entertaining and informative offerings.
"Propelled by China's preferential policies, local audience's transforming tastes as well as reforms in the film industry, a slew of patriotic films have emerged in recent years, forming a distinctive part of the global film landscape," says Fan Zhizhong, a professor and also executive director of the film and television development institute with Zhejiang University.
"Those films have also made a breakthrough in developing characters. Most of them have featured protagonists that are 'ordinary people', employing a more personal and humanized perspective to examine the milestone chapters of Chinese history or the transformation in the new era, making the stories more relatable to the audience," adds Fan.
Another factor, Fan notes, has been that many of Hong Kong's top filmmakers have opted to work in the Chinese mainland and their creative filming techniques have given movies an added dimension, as seen in Tsui Hark's 2014 offering The Taking of Tiger Mountain.
Marking Party's centenary
As last year marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, a number of movies and TV series were released to offer a retrospective of the CPC's glorious past and provide an opportunity to celebrate revolutionary heroes.
Two front-runners in this category are 1921, an epic that revisits the chaotic year in which the Party was founded in Shanghai, and The Pioneer, a poetic biography of Li Dazhao, one of the founders of the CPC.Respectively grossing 504 million yuan and 137 million yuan, the two films have provided a good referential model for domestic filmmakers to seek a more publicly appealing narration for such features.
More examples, exemplifying the endeavors of Chinese filmmakers to highlight ordinary people's heroic deeds, vary from National Day holiday blockbuster My Country, My Parents to summer vacation hit Chinese Doctors, respectively starring A-list actress Zhang Ziyi as a dedicated aerospace industry worker and paying tribute to the efforts of medical workers in Wuhan, Hubei province, the Chinese city hardest hit by COVID-19 in early 2020.
It is interesting to note the different approaches of China's top directors. They have used their distinctive methods to eulogize CPC heroes. One of the most critically acclaimed films is iconic auteur Zhang Yimou's Cliff Walkers, his first spy movie, which follows a team of CPC agents on their mission to expose the crimes of Japanese invaders in northeastern China during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45). In December, the film won three Golden Rooster Awards, the top honor for Chinese films.
Wang Yichuan, deputy chairman of China Literature and Art Critics Association, says Chinese filmmakers have made great strides in producing revolutionary stories in recent years, especially in terms of character development.
Drop of Hollywood charm
According to the China Film Administration, imported films accounted for 15.51 percent of the overall box-office takings in China last year, the lowest in a decade.
Additionally, eight of the 10 top-grossing films are made by Chinese studios, with their average score on major review sites like Douban higher than the other two imported films, F9: The Fast Saga and Godzilla vs Kong, according to Beacon and Douban.
Following the failure of Dune－adapted from Frank Herbert's hugely influential sci-fi novel－to enthrall local audiences, Daniel Craig's final outing as James Bond in the long-running franchise about the fictional MI6 agent also posted a mediocre performance in Chinese mainland theaters, with its box-office takings much lower than local blockbusters at 415 million yuan.
Aside from The Battle at Lake Changjin, now the country's all-time champion, last year's second and third highest-grossing titles, Hi, Mom stood at 5.4 billion yuan when Detective Chinatown 3 took 4.5 billion yuan.
Meanwhile, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's most recent superhero films－reportedly accounting for one-third of all the box-office takings in North America last year－have not been introduced to the Chinese mainland, marking the first such collective "absence" since Iron Man ushered in a golden age for the franchise in 2008.
Resurgences of the pandemic overseas hindered the production of foreign films, thus resulting in fewer cinematic imports, says Du Simeng, a Beijing-based critic.
Additionally, some Hollywood films chose to release on streaming sites that are not available in China. However, the major reason for the waning of Hollywood charm, she says, is that most movies are sequels, lacking freshness in their appeal to Chinese audiences.