China is Now the Biggest Box Office in the World. But Can Indies Play?
For the first time in history, China's box office returns beat all of North America's.
Another day, another point for China in the "New World Superpower" game. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, China outgrossed the North American box office with $1.05 billion in ticket sales this February, a 70% increase over February 2014. Projections indicate that China will officially overtake the US as the world's largest box office next year.
Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow's blockbuster hit The Mermaid contributed to more than half of ticket sales in China last month. The film, about a playboy businessman who falls in love with a blood-thirsty mermaid, is now the single highest-grossing film in the country's history.
According to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of China, more than 192 million people went to the cinema in China last month.
From 1979 to the early 1990s, movies released in China were almost exclusively propaganda films sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), according to afascinating report commissioned by the US-China Economic and Security Review.
Although the scope of films available to viewers today has broadened, censorship remains a widespread issue in China, leaving Chinese independent filmmakers with dismal options. According to Zhu Rikun, Artistic Director of the Beijing Indie Doc Fest, many Chinese film festivals exclude sensitive works and only screen films tolerated by the government. And it's no easier reaching Chinese audiences as an ex-pat. Jia Zhangke, the acclaimed Chinese independent film director, has only managed to screen four of his twelve films in China. According to current SAPPRFT regulations, all films exported to China must "adhere to the principles of the Chinese Constitution and maintain social morality." (Just how The Mermaid, pictured above,contributes to social morals remains to be seen.)
Although the Chinese box office is dominated by blockbusters, audiences do seem to be hungry for indie fare: Jia's latest film, Mountains May Depart, cracked the top 10 in November last year. When we spoke to Chinese indie filmmaker Johnny Ma at Berlinale, he told us that things have been looking up since the Golden Bear-winning indie film Black Coal, Thin Ice captured national interest. "This kind of film hadn’t been done in China before," he said. "It had a domestic release, and apparently it was popular. It opened up a new market — there’s another type of film that [Chinese] audiences might be able to accept."
But the market for American indies in China appears to be skeletal. Of the top 200 highest-grossing films in China last year, not one was an independent film made in the US.