China is making films—and going to the movies—like never before. Today, there are more movie screens in China than in the US, and the amount of money brought in at the Chinese box office is expected to overtake the US by 2020. Recent Chinese-made blockbusters like Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Red Sea, and The Wandering Earth have passed the $500 million mark at the box office, making them among the most profitable of the past few years.
What makes this feat even more impressive, is that most of the revenue for these movies has come from China’s growing domestic market. And that’s left Hollywood studios vying for the limited number of spots for non-Chinese films allowed to be shown here, even changing plots to appeal to government authorities, or arranging co-productions with Chinese companies. Up until a few years ago, the highest grossing films in China were almost always from Hollywood, but in 2018, five of the top 10 highest-earning films were domestic productions.
China’s central propaganda department, which oversees the national film bureau, has said it wants to boost the stature of Chinese films, at home and abroad. By 2035, China aims to release 100 films a year with gross revenues of over $15 million. It’s part of China’s soft power drive to promote patriotic content and present a positive image of the country. Last year, 44 films met that criteria.
Despite growing revenues, jingoistic, hyper-patriotic Chinese films like the Rambo-esque Wolf Warrior 2 haven’t exactly made a splash among international audiences. But that may be changing. This year, China’s first big-budget sci-fi movie, The Wandering Earth, made over $700 million, and was released on Netflix after a limited international theater run. Meanwhile. Amazon acquired the rights to the science fiction novel trilogy The Three-Body Problem for $1 billion.
In episode seven of our video series Because China, we take a look at how China is changing its approach to making films and what it means for the rest of the world.