China’s censorship is sinking its own movie market

Empty seats soon?
Empty seats soon?
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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China’s box-office take for the first half of the year declined for the first time in a decade—and China’s own censorship could be one of the culprits.

As of June, China’s box office has taken in around 31 billion yuan ($4.5 billion) (links in Chinese) this year, a 2.8% drop from around 32 billion yuan ($4.7 billion) the same period last year, according to data compiled from China’s TV and film regulator, the National Radio and Television Administration, and state-run newspaper People’s Daily.

The drop comes in a year that has seen China toughen censorship on the movie industry. The ruling Communist Party will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the nation’s foundation in October, which is leading to more scrutiny of themes that could be considered politically sensitive to the party. In addition, Beijing’s also cracking down on “pornographic or vulgar content” in TV and films. And at least one movie didn’t end up coming to theaters after its star, Fan Bingbing, was embroiled in a tax-evasion scandal.

Half a dozen Chinese productions have been blocked from screening in recent months because of last-minute censorship, according to news outlet Hollywood Reporter. This week alone, two Chinese movies canceled screenings.

On Monday (July 15), martial-arts extravaganza The Hidden Sword was scrapped from its Friday release because of “market reasons,” according to its official statement. Set in the 1930s, it tells a story of a military officer who leads Chinese soldiers to fight Japanese invaders on the Great Wall. Hong Kong news media Apple Daily said (paywall) it’s likely the film was canceled because the soldiers were fighting for the nationalist Kuomintang party, with which the Communist Party fought a civil war. The other one, The Last Wish, a comedy that depicts the story of a man with a fatal disease who wants to lose his virginity before dying, announced it would not have a scheduled screening tomorrow because of “production reasons.”

Another film that was set to open this month, The Eight Hundred, which also depicts Chinese soldiers with the Kuomingtang party fighting off Japanese invaders in the 1930s, was yanked from the Shanghai International Film Festival in June, The film’s producers then announced it wouldn’t release in cinemas July 5, but didn’t give a reason why.

The timing of the cancellations is unusual because China usually tries to boost the audience for domestic movies during the summer when most schools are off for vacation. China has an unofficial annual cap for imported foreign films, currently at about 34, and it tends to limit screening those during the summer. A total of 68 movies are scheduled to launch between late June to end of August, according to movie-ticketing site Maoyan. That’s around half of the 137 movies launched in the same period last year. The industry’s tax-evasion scandal, which saw Beijing crackdown on actors concealing their pay to avoid taxes, has also delayed productions and slowed movie investment.

It’s unclear how many films faced censorship last year—China has a habit of banning films, usually foreign ones considered violent, vulgar, or promoting superstition.

Earlier this year, two Chinese productions also failed to screen at the Berlin Film Festival as scheduled, both citing “technical reasons.” One Second, a film directed by award-winning director Zhang Yimou, is about the sensitive topic of China’s Cultural Revolution turmoil in the 1960s and ’70s, while Better Days is a Hong Kong-mainland co-production telling the story a girl embroiled in a murder case.

The decline this year could deter China’s progress in overtaking the US as the world’s biggest movie market—the first six months usually account for about 50% of the whole year, previous records show. According to one estimate by auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, China’s box-office income could overtake the US in 2020. But if China continues to tighten its grip, the Chinese audience won’t be left with many choices about what to watch.