China’s box office surges as local films lead $1B in sales post lifting of zero-COVID rules
China’s box office raked in more than $1 billion in ticket sales this month, surpassing pre-pandemic figures from the same period in 2019, as movie-goers flocked to the cinema over the Lunar New Year holiday after the lifting of most zero-COVID rules.
Locally made Chinese-language films dominated the top five grossers, led by Zhang Yimou’s action comedy Full River Red.
Movie theaters were one of many Chinese industries hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns. They've been running at 75% capacity since September 2021.
On Tuesday Chinese box offices passed the $1 billion mark, according to state media CGTN. During the same festive stretch in 2019, ticket sales reached nearly $994 million, the China Film Administration reported: 14% lower than this year. In 2022, theaters earned more than $888 million in ticket sales over the Lunar New Year period.
An uptick in box office revenue is usually expected over the festive season when people visit the cinema during the weeklong national holiday. The lifting of most restrictions under China's strict zero-COVID rules earlier this year may also have been a factor.
Full River Red, released on Jan. 22, topped the list, grossing more than $465 million within eight days. The Wandering Earth 2, a sci-fi sequel directed by Frant Gwo, took second place, earning $378 million in ticket sales, while Boonie Bears: Guardian Code, an animated Chinese installment released every Lunar New Year, claimed $136 million.
Other movies that performed well include the World War II espionage thriller Hidden Blade and animated children’s film Deep Sea — both of which are Chinese productions.
Hollywood films were notably absent from the top charts. But according to Artisan Gateway, an Asia-based film consulting firm, films like Avatar: The Way of Water were released prior to the Lunar New Year holiday, therefore seeing their screen share dip amid new Chinese releases.
In an interview with Variety, an Artisan Gateway spokesperson said that the anticipated return of Marvel films will “advance the rebound of the market.”
But even as China sees record ticket sales amid loosening COVID-19 restrictions, analysts worry that mounting censorship and tightening import controls of foreign films will prevent the industry from performing at its best.
Only 59 foreign films were approved for screening in China last year, down from 73 in 2021 and 136 in 2019, the Financial Times reported, adding that international blockbusters were previously the highest revenue generators in the market.