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Media & Entertainment

China surpasses the US as Hollywood loses its box office mojo

Moviegoers return to cinemas as world's most populous nation contains COVID-19

Chinese moviegoers take in a film while wearing face masks in a Beijing theater in July.   © AP

SHANGHAI -- The Chinese box office has surpassed North America's to become No. 1 in the world as the recent string of national holidays and the country's success in containing the coronavirus brought moviegoers back to theaters in droves.

China's total ticket sales for 2020 reached 12.95 billion yuan ($1.93 billion) on Oct. 15, edging the $1.65 billion total for North America, according to data from Chinese box office tracker Lighthouse and Box Office Mojo, raising expectations that China's film industry -- one of the worst hit by the pandemic -- could end the year No. 1. About 85% of the titles released so far were locally produced films.

The industry has its sights set higher. "There is plenty of space to accelerate the promotion of Chinese films abroad and attract top-class moviemakers in joint-productions," Wang Jianer, chairman of studio Shanghai Film Group, told a forum recently.

Led by love stories and patriotic titles that include "My People, My Homeland" and the animated feature "Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification," the national box office raked in $586 million during the eight-day National Day break, which started on Oct. 1.

"A mix of newly released movies and blockbusters delayed from the Spring Festival season earlier this year drove box office revenues, marking this year's holiday as the second-highest revenue-generating period in Chinese film history," according to ticketing operator Maoyan Entertainment.

During the holiday period, 10,600 cinemas, or 94% of the nation's total, received nearly 100 million moviegoers despite audience numbers being capped at 75% of total capacity per cinema due to the virus.

"National Day releases met pent-up demand suppressed for over half a year, boosting confidence for the development and orderly recovery of the film market," said Ming Zhenjiang, chairman of China Film Producers Association.

Theater operator IMAX said it will release at least 10 local-language titles in key markets including China before the end of the year.

The New York- and Hong Kong-listed company gained a record $13 million box office during the National Day period, part of the company's $53.2 million in sales since cinemas across China began to reopen in late July.

"The remarkable strength of the box office recovery in China continues to exceed our expectations, and the country has emerged as an engine of stability for IMAX as uncertainty persists around the Hollywood slate and theater reopenings elsewhere in the world," CEO Rich Gelfond said.

Market observers are now looking forward to the next holiday season -- the Spring Festival, starting on Feb. 12. "Detective Chinatown 3" is among the titles lined up for release during the vacation period.

The latest entry in a well-received comedy series, "Detective Chinatown 3" was originally scheduled to be released for this year's Lunar New Year holidays in late January.

"If the pandemic keeps restricting moviegoers in the rest of the world," said Lim Young Chien, co-founder of Fiction 9, a Beijing-based studio, "China's box office might have the chance to stay at the top for the time being."

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