Cinemas in China Are Not Only Open, but Raking In Record Sales

Restricted from travel, Chinese consumers are spending record amounts on movies.
February 17, 2021, 7:34am
China's film industry gets a post-COVID boost
Chinese consumers are among the first to return to cinemas. PHOTO: STRINGER / AFP

With cinemas shut by the COVID-19 pandemic in many parts of the world, Chinese consumers are watching so many movies these days that box-office revenues are breaking records.

As people are discouraged from traveling during the Lunar New Year holiday, watching movies has become a top entertainment choice. And it doesn’t matter that some titles have gotten pretty bad reviews. 

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Chinese consumers are among the first to return to cinemas as the country contained the spread of COVID-19 in most regions last year. The early recovery helped make China the world’s largest film market in 2020, surpassing the United States for the first time. 

Box office revenues during the Lunar New Year holiday that ran from February 11 to 17 surpassed $1 billion and broke the previous record of $910 million set in 2019. 

On the first day of the Year of Ox, Chinese moviegoers spent $260 million in total, the largest single-day box-office revenue in any single market, according to film data provider Maoyan Entertainment. 

But the record sales numbers don’t mean people actually enjoyed the movies. Detective Chinatown 3, a buddy-cop comedy that currently tops the box-office ranking, only got 5.7 out of 10 points on film review site Douban.

The movie tells the story of two cops solving a murder case in Tokyo, and has been criticized for its poor storytelling, excessive product placements, and sexist jokes. 

One of the most liked reviews compared the movie to a “rotten durian pizza” (it’s a thing). “You heat it up in the microwave, and the entire home is filled with the smell of shit.” 

The film nonetheless raked in about $156 million on its debut day, almost matching the $157 million opening-day record in a single market set by Avengers: Endgame in the U.S. 

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Hi, Mom, a heartwarming family comedy that has the second-highest ticket sales, got a much better score of 8.2. Its director and lead actress Jia Ling, also a well-known comedian, has become the Chinese female director with the highest box-office revenues. 

Yin Hong, a Tsinghua University communications professor and film commentator, wrote on the microblogging site Weibo that raised ticket prices and the strong demand caused by travel restrictions have contributed to the surge in box-office revenues. 

Most cities have put a 75 percent cap on cinema capacity during the Lunar New Year holiday. Some social media users say it’s a struggle fighting for seats on ticketing apps. 

Hollywood blockbusters used to be big winners of China’s expanding film market, despite tight controls on the number of foreign films screened in the country. But domestic films have dominated the theaters after U.S.-China tensions fuelled nationalistic sentiment and the pandemic stalled foreign productions.

Warner Bros’ remake of Tom and Jerry is the next Hollywood film to be screened in China. Popular franchise titles such as Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, and Minions 2, which have had their release dates delayed due to the coronavirus, will also have a chance to earn big money in China. 

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.