As Chinese film goers pivot to local content, Hollywood loses out

A preference for local movies as well as ongoing US-China tensions have eroded the market for Hollywood movies in China.

With China’s box office takings expected to return to near pre-pandemic highs in 2021, the world’s largest movie market is becoming more attractive — and more tricky — for Hollywood studios.

Ticket sales from movie theaters in China, which has largely contained the coronavirus, may jump to 60 billion yuan ($9 billion) this year, according to Rance Pow, founder of consultancy Artisan Gateway, closing in on 2019’s record haul of 64 billion yuan. By contrast, with outbreaks still raging, U.S. cinemas may take in about a third of that tally, Wedbush Securities estimates, underscoring Hollywood studios’ growing dependence on the Asian country.

China overtook the U.S. to become the top movie market last year, as the pandemic shut American film theaters for longer than their Chinese peers. But the increasing reliance comes as Chinese viewers pivot to local language films, and show a greater sensitivity toward portrayals of China and its people in Western culture, amid simmering geopolitical tensions with the U.S. Adding to the pressure on studios, a bilateral pact that required China to import a minimum number of American movies every year, has expired.

With new Covid-19 cases down to a handful a day, Chinese moviegoers are flocking back to cinemas. While Jan. 1 saw the highest New Year box office collection in China, the Lunar New Year on Feb. 12 recorded the highest one-day taking. Ticket sales during the first five days of the Lunar New Year holidays touched 5.7 billion yuan, surpassing figures for the same period in 2019, according to Maoyan Entertainment, with Chinese films emerging as the top contributors.

Shares of Imax China Holding Inc. jumped as much as 88% in Hong Kong on Tuesday, the biggest intraday gain on record. Maoyan rose as much as 25% and Alibaba Pictures Group Ltd. rallied 34%.

“China’s market is now central to any major release,” said Aynne Kokas, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “Diminishing market share presents a worrying picture for Hollywood studios” that may have been relying on China to recoup blockbusters’ budgets, she said.

The share of foreign films, including those from Hollywood, slipped to 16% of Chinese ticket receipts in 2020 from 36% the year before, according to ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment. Fewer foreign films were released in China last year as studios’ plans went awry amid the pandemic.

The legal framework for Hollywood studios to get their films into China has also become less certain. An agreement with the U.S. that saw China import at least 34 films a year expired in 2017 and hasn’t been renewed or renegotiated. While the Chinese government has continued to allow American movies in, it could pull the plug on that access any time, particularly if it decides to use it as a diplomatic lever with new U.S. President Joe Biden.

“The expiration of the U.S.-China film agreement presents a serious challenge to Hollywood studios,” said Kokas. It’s unclear when the new U.S. administration will be renegotiating this pact, given “the competing priorities they face in the relationship with China.”

Local Studios

The most anticipated movies this Lunar New Year season include mystery comedy “Detective Chinatown 3” and family comedy “Hi, Mom” — both Chinese language titles made by local studios. Warner Bros Entertainment Inc.’s live-action remake of the cartoon classic “Tom and Jerry” is the only big Hollywood film confirmed to release on Feb. 26, when it opens in the U.S. too.

Chinese studios produced four of the 10 top-grossing films globally last year, including the top scorer, “The Eight Hundred,” according to industry data tracker Box Office Mojo. Meanwhile, several of Hollywood’s highly anticipated, big-budget films either flopped in China or faced public-relations issues.

Imax Corp., whose cameras were used in shooting “Detective Chinatown 3,” saw its biggest opening weekend in China over the holidays, with sales up 45% from 2019’s level. The strong holiday box office performance has eliminated any doubt whether people would go back to the theaters, Edwin Tan, Chief Executive Officer of Imax China, told Bloomberg Television in an interview Tuesday.

Walt Disney Co.’s fantasy-action drama “Mulan” stirred up controversy for its portrayal of Chinese culture and was also criticized for filming in the Xinjiang region, where the government is accused of oppressing Muslim-minority Uighurs.

“Monster Hunter,” directed by Paul W.S. Anderson and backed by Sony Corp., was pulled from some cinemas in China after a social media backlash over a dialog that, according to some viewers, was similar to a playground taunt against people of Asian descent. The movie’s co-producer apologized and edited out that line.

“Chinese consumer sentiment toward anything American is at an all-time, modern day low,” said Chris Fenton, an American film producer and trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute. With Chinese studios now making high quality and culturally relevant films, Fenton said the days of China’s market saving a mediocre movie were over.