Four years ago, I went to Shenzhen on an ordinary Tuesday morning to catch one of the first screenings of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts film The Grandmaster on its open­ing day in China. Given the need to file a review immediately afterwards, I opted for a four-screen cineplex just a few hundred metres from the Futian checkpoint on the border with Hong Kong.

The cineplex was eerily empty – of customers, of course, but also of staff. First, there was a 10-minute wait before someone appeared at the ticketing booth; another 10 minutes passed before the audience – me and three middle-aged men – were allowed to take our seats. It took another 15 minutes for the lights to dim and the projection to finally begin.

Then, about 15 minutes into the film, the image stuttered and came to a halt. A few minutes later, an usher came in and instructed us to leave, as the screening was cancelled due to “technical problems”.

How bubble burst on China’s cinema industry ‘boom’

As I and my fellow film-goers lined up for a refund, a woman who was hanging around the doors to the cineplex rushed over; some­how already aware that we hadn’t got to see The Grandmaster, she asked whether we would like to spend some time at her nearby massage parlour while we waited for the next screening. (I didn’t take up the offer, and went to see the film in another, more bankable cinema instead.)

It’s an anecdote I have shared with many friends, because it sounds more like a skit than real life. In the past year or two, however, the story has seemed to resemble folklore from a distant age – could this have really happened just four years ago, given all the bright, shiny and efficient cinemas in China today?

Behind the scenes in the ‘Hollywood’ of China

Chinese cinemas have made great strides in the experience they offer. Through a multitude of online portals, film-goers can choose a nearby cinema in which to watch a movie – and the more internet-savvy can buy tickets at ridiculously discounted prices.

The new multiplexes boast wide screens and (mostly) comfortable seats. Although it’s not uncommon to see people smoking in the toilets, the facilities are much cleaner than in the past. More importantly, screenings begin on time and rarely grind to a halt midway through the film.

Why China’s richest man is building Hollywood of the East in Qingdao

While China’s economic growth slows – a situation mirrored by sluggish consumer sales – cinema operators remain relent­lessly optimistic.

A fortnight ago, the state-owned Chinese film conglomerate Omnijoi announced it would add 40 Imax screens to its multiplexes across the country. By 2021, the company is set to become the fifth largest operator of Imax screens in the world, with 72 – a fact that sums up China’s importance for Imax, which counts the country as its biggest single market.

Why cinemas in large areas of China are virtually empty

Such investment in premium screening facilities is representative of the burgeoning of the film exhibition business. Speaking at a forum at the Beijing International Film Festival, film bureau official Li Guoqi said there were more than 43,000 cinema screens in China, more than in the United States. More staggering still is the fact, reported by entertainment business research portal Entgroup, that 3,179 screens opened during the first three months of 2017 – an average of 36 screens per day.

It’s ironic that all this expansion is unfolding at a time when box office takings are falling in China. The value of ticket sales for the first quarter of 2017 was 13.5 billion yuan (HK$15.24 billion, US$1.96 billion), a drop of 7 per cent compared with the same period in 2016. More worryingly, Hollywood imports have dominated ticket sales, with six US blockbusters in the box office top 10 for 2017. The latest, The Fate of the Furious , is a shoo-in to replace Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga at the top of the charts this week.

With all the plush seats cinema seats and state-of-the-art facilities, it’s up to the film industry – and the authorities regulating it – to figure out how to make home-grown films for audiences that demand more than superficial escapism.