It was a headline-worthy occurrence last year when China’s February movie box office total of 4 billion RMB (US$650 million) exceeded that of the U.S., the first time in history that China—or any other territory—out-grossed America over the course of a full month.
However, a couple of disclaimers went along with that notable performance. Firstly, February is one of China’s strongest movie-going months of the year, and one of the weakest for the U.S., so the comparison wasn’t strictly apples-to-apples.
Secondly, the U.S. is not actually the relevant territory for comparison, since film distributors count the U.S. and Canada together as a single united territory, North America (never mind that Mexico and the Caribbean are also parts of North America; for the purposes of box office calculations they’re counted separately). And China didn’t beat ‘North America’ last year.
But no disclaimers will be necessary in 2016; China will soundly beat Canada and the U.S. combined this February. In fact, as of the 10th of February China was oupacing North America by a ratio of more than two to one, with $320 million in aggregate revenue versus $145 million for the combined U.S.-Canada market.
What has propelled China’s dominance this month is a surge in New Year’s holiday movie attendance. On Monday, Chinese New Year’s Day, revenues totaled $101 million, a 78% increase over 2015 and a 135% jump over 2014. The holiday’s highest grossing film has been The Mermaid, which collected a whopping RMB 1 billion (US$151 million) in its first four days of release. A pair of newly opening sequels, The Man From Macau 3 and The Monkey King 2 have combined to add an additional RMB 1 billion to the holiday tally.
Even if the upcoming Hollywood releases Deadpool and Gods of Egypt perform better than expected in the U.S., there’s little chance that North America can catch up with China this month. The more likely scenario is that the current Chinese holdovers and the upcoming Crouching Tiger sequel and Valentine’s Day releases will help to maintain or even widen China’s lead.
The difference in growth trajectories between the two markets will inevitably result in more months when China leads the global box office, until a point next year or in 2018 when it will fully supplant North America to become the world’s biggest territory once and for all.
Last month’s numbers underscore this point. While North American exhibitors cheered a 5.7% year-on-year increase in theatrical revenues, thanks mainly to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, their Chinese counterparts barely noted their 47% revenue jump over January, 2015. Growth rates of 40% and higher have been so common for so long in China that they no longer merit comment.
As China’s distributors and exhibitors pile up profits they will continue to seek opportunities to pay—and apparently overpay—for ownership stakes in Hollywood movie companies and productions that can help them to more fully participate in the global movie industry. With a ready contingent of sellers in North America, control over the levers of the business will increasingly shift toward the Middle Kingdom.