The summer box office has reached a new historical high
By Ji Jing  ·  2023-08-28  ·   Source: NO.35 AUGUST 31, 2023
Moviegoers walk into a cinema in Shanghai on August 13 (CNSPHOTO)

This summer, the performance of China's domestic movie industry has been nothing short of exhilarating. According to Chinese entertainment live tracker Beacon, box office sales of films screened on China's mainland this summer season (from June 1 to August 31) reached 19 billion yuan ($2.6 billion) as of August 22, a historical high.

The figure marked a significant improvement over those of the 2020, 2021 and 2022 summer seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic, which were 3.62 billion ($497.2 million), 7.38 billion ($1.01 billion) and 9.14 billion yuan ($1.26 billion), respectively, according to Beacon.

It was also higher than the pre-pandemic levels in 2018 and 2019, which were 17.4 billion ($2.39 billion) and 17.8 billion yuan ($2.44 billion), respectively, according to Beacon.

Aside from the post-pandemic surge in moviegoers, the higher cost of movie tickets also helped drive the record box office takings. According to Beacon, the average movie ticket price rose from 35.3 yuan ($4.8) during the summer season in 2014 to 42.7 yuan ($5.6) as of August 22 this year.

Savoring the suspense 

To cater to the needs of audiences of different ages, this summer's films covered a variety of genres, including action, animation and comedy. The diverse themes and genres provided a wide variety of options for moviegoers to choose from.

At the box office this summer, domestic films performed better than their imported peers. As of August 18, all six of the top-grossing films were domestic films, and the market share of domestic films during the summer season exceeded 80 percent.

"The performance of this year's summer season has exceeded many people's expectations. The entire film industry is experiencing a recovery, with several films playing a key driving role," Rao Shuguang, President of the China Film Critics Association, told major Chinese news portal People's Daily Online. He added that this year's summer film market not only featured big-budget (more than $11 million) films but also mid-budget ($1.4 million to 11 million) films, indicating the film market's more balanced development.

Movies depicting traditional culture played into the growing cultural confidence of cinema audiences. For example, Chang An, an animated film about the friendship between Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Gao Shi and master of romantic poetry Li Bai, rekindled the public's love for Chinese poetry. The movie features 48 Tang poems in 168 minutes, and many moviegoers eagerly recited poems alongside the protagonists on the big screen.

As of August 21, the film had earned more than 1.7 billion yuan ($233.3 million), making it the second highest-grossing animated film ever released in China, behind the 2019 animated fantasy film Ne Zha: Birth of the Demon Child, which featured the Chinese mythological character Ne Zha—a teen deity who serves as a patron saint of young adults.

"The way people can access knowledge changes from one generation to the next. Those born after 1995 are used to learning new things through online videos, and we should attract more young people to learn about traditional culture in a way that is popular with them," Yu Zhou, President of Light Chaser Animation, the Beijing-based animation studio that produced the film, told People's Daily. "Young people's rising interest in traditional Chinese culture makes us confident that the domestic animated genre will soon be booming."

Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, a fantasy epic about the overthrow of a tyrant 3,000 years ago, is inspired by the rich culture and history of China. One of the summer season's biggest blockbusters, the film, based on a novel from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), had grossed more than 2.2 billion yuan ($301.9 million) as of August 21.

Realistic films, too, struck a chord with moviegoing audiences. For example, the thriller Lost in the Stars had raked in over 3.5 billion yuan ($480.4 million) as of August 21. The movie tells the story of a woman who disappears while on an overseas trip with her husband. Just when the search for her runs out of steam, she mysteriously reappears. But the husband does not believe she is the same woman and thinks she is a fraud. Online reviews raved about the film's suspense build-up and plot twists. Other super popular films this summer were the sports movie Never Say Never, telling the tale of how wrestling has changed the lives of rural children, and No More Bets, a crime drama about overseas cyberfraud.

Plot twist 

Unlike domestic films, Hollywood films performed poorly.

Take the highly anticipated Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, for instance. For the seventh installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, a world-renowned franchise known for its thrilling espionage action, movie star Tom Cruise once again reprised his iconic role of Ethan Hunt, the impossibly skilled leader of the secretive spy organization Impossible Mission Force.

But as of August 22, 40 days after its release, the film had earned only 347 million yuan ($47.6 million) at the Chinese box office, far less than the top-grossing films.

Hollywood films are used to attracting audiences with their dazzling visual effects, focusing on action, fantasy and adventure. However, Chinese audiences are increasingly paying attention to more realistic, day-to-day issues they can relate to.

Liu Peng, Director of the Maoyan Research Institute, an entertainment industry analysis platform, told that Hollywood may need to better understand the Chinese market to win back viewers. "Audience preferences for movies are changing. They need innovation in content and emotional resonance, as special effects and 'big scenes' can no longer satisfy their needs," he said. 

But Hollywood movies are not to be discounted, either. Barbie, the first live-action movie about the iconic doll, received a high rating of 8.3 out of 10 on popular Chinese movie review site Douban.

Though the film took just 2.4 percent of all screens on China's mainland on its opening day, word of mouth and online reviews helped it gain more attention from cinemas and moviegoers alike.

By the fourth day, the movie's screenings had risen to 8.6 percent. As of August 22, it had earned more than 248 million yuan ($34 million) in China, according to film statistics website Maoyan, and its global box office revenue had surpassed $1.2 billion as of August 22, according to box office tracking website

For Chinese audiences, the film encouraged people to think about how society views and portrays women.

Sino-foreign co-productions broke new ground this summer. Meg 2: The Trench, the sequel to The Meg, had earned 771 million yuan ($105.8 million) in China as of August 22, 19 days after its release, according to Maoyan. The Meg, a shark-versus-human action/horror film released in 2018, grossed $530 million at the global box office, making it one of the most successful blockbusters ever co-produced by China and the United States.

Unlike in many previous co-produced blockbusters where the Chinese had supporting roles, Chinese actor Wu Jing, who played scientist Zhang Jiuming in the movie, is one of the film's lead actors.

As the summer film season now prepares for its closing shot, industry insiders have high expectations for China's upcoming National Day Holiday season in late September and early October, which will see the release of The Great War, a movie about the Chinese People's Volunteers army, directed by Chen Kaige, the Chinese film director noted for his realistic, sensitive, compassionate, and unflinching view of the lives and hopes of Chinese people, and urban crime drama Under the Light directed by the iconic Zhang Yimou.

(Print Edition Title: Break Out the Popcorn!) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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