A Formula One race car. A California redwood tree. Superman. China's box office.
Which one of these is not like the other?
A Formula One car can accelerate to 220 mph but it will eventually run out of gas. A redwood can grow tall and mighty but it will eventually reach its limit and topple to the ground. And Superman can't keep flying forever—even he needs to take a break once in a while.
But the Chinese box office, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going and going and going. Two years ago I wrote in astonishment about the gravity-defying growth of the PRC's movie business, and two years on the story just keeps getting bigger and better.
Fueled by a record-breaking February 2015 revenue haul which exceeded that of the U.S., and a March 2015 total that was 73 percent higher than the same period in 2014, aggregate PRC box office receipts for the first quarter of 2015 reached the unprecedented total of $1.54 billion. This is nearly 40 percent higher than the Q1 total in 2014, and more than China's entire annual box office revenue of 2010.
If the trends of previous years hold, Q1 will account for about 22 to 24 percent of the year's total gross. This would mean a year-end total somewhere between $6.4 billion and $7 billion. From there it will be just a few short years before China surpasses North America to become the world's top box office territory.
Projected Annual Box Office, China vs. N. America, 2014-2020
Even by China's extraordinary standards of economic growth, the rise of the movie business has been nothing short of astounding. Just ten years ago China's moviegoers accounted for barely one in one hundred of all the world's ticket sales. By 2020 they will purchase more than one in three.
The impact of this massive growth is already being felt in the rest of the film world, with China becoming an increasingly important source of capital for films made in North America, Europe, and Asia. The global movie industry's center of gravity is rapidly shifting across the Pacific from Hollywood to Beijing, and the key decisions about the types of films that are made, how and where they're made, and who they're made for are inevitably going to be heavily influenced by the Chinese Communist Party.
Of the 70 films released during China's first quarter this year, 23 grossed at least 100 million RMB (US $16 million), and four crossed the $100 million threshold. The revenue leader for the year so far is the Chow Yun-fat starring action-comedy The Man From Macau II, which collected $154 million for Bona Film Group. March’s box office winner was Disney's animated hit Big Hero 6, which moved into the #2 spot among China's all-time highest grossing animated features at $85 million, just behind Dreamworks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 2, which scored $92 million back in 2011.
U.S.-made films captured a modest 29.5% of the market in the quarter, the lowest share in several years, though they will begin to make up ground this weekend when Universal's Furious 7 rolls into PRC multiplexes. Still, given the growing ability of Chinese films to compete on their home turf with Hollywood fare—not to mention SARFT's careful management of the market—it's unlikely that American films will ever come close again to taking 50 percent of China's ticket sales as they did in 2012.
A look at film performance by genre reveals a few noteworthy trends. While action-adventure remains the PRC's most popular genre, it has given up ground to family and animation films, which have continued to expand their market base over the past several years. As the bulk of China's new cinema construction shifts away from tier 1 and 2 cities to the hinterlands, and as the market starts to mature, audience tastes will continue to broaden.