Like so many other industries, American film studios salivate at the numbers coming out of China. Unlike in North America, where box office revenues grew by only 1% last year, ticket sales in China jumped by 27%, according to new data from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPPA). But selling Western films in China is much harder than some other consumer goods, due to the regulatory and cultural barriers erected by Beijing.
China has become the first market aside from North America to exceed $3 billion in ticket sales, hitting $3.6 billion and pushing worldwide ticket revenues up 4% to $35.9 billion. Box office sales in Asia Pacific have grown rapidly over the past few years and have now inched past what have traditionally been the world’s largest movie-going markets, US and Canada, and Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Optimistic observers think that China’s fast-growing film industry is approaching a golden age. Around 13 new theaters are built in China a day, according to the MPAA. China’s Dalian Wanda Group, owner of the world’s largest cinema chain, is building what it claims will be the world’s biggest film and television center in the eastern coastal city of Qingdao.
But it’s not clear how much this phenomenal growth will actually shore up the global film industry. Currently, only 34 foreign films are allowed in Chinese theaters a year. Chinese officials were reportedly considering raising that number to 44, possibly around the time of the National People’s Congress. That meeting has now passed without any new announcements about foreign film quotas.
Despite Hollywood’s lobbying, China has been loathe to let too many foreign movies in while its domestic film industry is still growing. US film companies get only 25% of box office earnings for their movies in China, compared to 40%-45% in other countries—and last year Chinese officials held up the payment of $143 million in an attempt to negotiate an even lower cut.
Moreover, one of the emerging channels for foreign films and television shows to reach China, through selling content to internet firms operating online streaming sites, is being coming under new restrictions. Internet companies will now have to employ government approved censors and get a censorship license before broadcasting shows and movies.