The pandemic has propelled China into the world’s largest moviegoing market. Even prior to the pandemic, China boasted the world’s largest number of movie theatre screens – over 75,000 – which was almost twice the number of 44,000 active screens across the U.S. Moreover, fewer Chinese theatres were forced to close for extended periods during the COVID crisis. Chinese studios have remained active in releasing a steady stream of new movies over the last 18 months, racking up record-breaking results for local titles such as Hi, Mom ($822.1M) and Chinese Doctors ($197M).
Hollywood has been less successful in China this year than in prior years. This year, Hollywood films in China have earned a total of $700M through July 31st, only 1/3 of the $2.1B taken in by this point in 2019. Analysts point to these factors in the dramatic drop:
- The Delta Variant. China follows a zero-tolerance policy to control COVID outbreaks, which has led recently to the closure of as many as 3,500 theatres to halt the spread of the Delta variant.
- An interview with director Chloe Zhao, who is a native of China, resurfaced earlier this year in which she criticized China for being a “place where lies are everywhere.” This led to Zhao’s Oscar-winning film Nomadland being blacklisted in China and has cast doubt over prospects for the upcoming release of Disney/Marvel’s The Eternals, also directed by Zhao. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, another Marvel production, has also faced criticism in China for portraying negative racial stereotypes, which may limit its potential in China in a similar way to last September’s release of Mulan.
- The Chinese release date for the biggest Hollywood releases of the summer, including Black Widow, The Suicide Squad and Space Jam: A New Legacy, have been held back until September to give space in August to local Chinese films during the 100th year celebration of the founding of China’s Communist Party. However, because they have all been released in the U.S. and on streaming services, pirated copies of these films are widely available to watch online, which will certainly eat into the box office potential for these films when they are finally released in Chinese theatres.
As a result, Hollywood studios may not be able to rely on ticket sales in China in 2021 to make up for the downturn in the U.S. box office.