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People queue for tickets at a multiplex cinema in Wuhan, central China. The Chinese box office exceeded that in the US and Canada in the first three months of 2018. Photo: Reuters

Hollywood says China will soon be world’s top film market, as ticket sales overtake US-Canada in 2018

With big-budget American films opening bigger in China than at home, and US and Canada cinema takings at a 22-year low amid declining audiences, the Chinese market will soon be No. 1, Motion Picture Association of America says


Even as trade tensions are mounting between the United States and China, the importance of Chinese movie-goers to Hollywood has never been more apparent.

Global cinema box office sales reached a record high of US$40.6 billion in 2017 despite a downturn in audiences in the US and Canada, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) said in its latest annual report. Attendance at US and Canadian cinemas fell to a 22-year low.

The growth was largely propelled by China, which accounted for US$7.9 billion in ticket sales in 2017. That fuelled a 7 per cent increase in overseas box office takings for US films. US and Canada ticket sales by comparison totalled US$11.1 billion, down 2 per cent. If not for a 4 per cent increase in the average ticket price to US$8.97, the drop would have been worse.

A suburban cinema in Atlanta. Cinema-going fell in the United States and Canada in 2017. Photo: AP
The Chinese film market is going to be the largest film market in short order. They’re building about 25 screens a day
Charles Rivkin, MPAA chairman

After briefly stalling in 2016, the needle is going the other direction in China.

“The Chinese film market is going to be the largest film market in short order,” said Charles Rivkin, a former US assistant secretary of state who in January took over from Christopher Dodd as MPAA chairman. “They’re building about 25 screens a day.”

China’s cinema owners bullish about industry’s prospects 

The shift has in many ways already begun. For the first time, the Chinese movie market overtook North America in the first quarter of 2018. Several big-budget Hollywood productions, including Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player OnePacific Rim: Uprising and Tomb Raider, had bigger debuts in China than in the US and Canada.

A scene from Pacific Rim: Uprising, which had a bigger opening in China than in the US and Canada. Photo: Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures/AP

The growing importance of Chinese cinemas to Hollywood comes at a sensitive time for relations between the two countries. In response to moves by the Trump administration, China on Wednesday unveiled proposed tariffs on numerous American products, rocking the stock market and stoking fears of a larger trade war.

Hollywood being short-changed by Chinese cinemas, audit finds

Restrictions on film imports to China are already considerable for Hollywood; the country caps foreign films at 34 per year. The Office of the United States Trade Representatives is currently negotiating to lessen those terms. “We remain hopeful,” said Rivkin of the negotiations.

Aech, left, and Parzival in a scene from Ready Player One. Steven Spielberg’s film took more on its opening in China than domestically. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

While pessimism often abounds about the future of the cinema business in North America, due in part to digital upstarts like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, the MPAA sought to paint a more optimistic picture. 

China smashes world monthly box office record, as February takings top US$1.57 billion

John Fithian, president and chief executive of the National Association of Theatre Owners, attributed any year-to-year ups and downs to the quality of the releases.

Among the statistics trotted out by the report: more than three-quarters of the US and Canada population – 263 million people – went to cinemas at least once in 2017. The gender split of audiences was exactly 50-50.

Daniel Wu as Lu Ren and Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, which had a bigger opening in China than its home market. Photo: Ilze Kitshoff, Warner Bros. Pictures-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

For the first time, the report expanded to include home entertainment revenue. Despite the cratering of the DVD market in recent years, global home entertainment grosses have increased in the last two years, thanks to rising digital sales: US$32.1 billion in 2017, up from US$24.5 billion in 2016. Those totals, however, include subscription streaming services, which many consider a threat to cinemas.