China’s film industry rides a summer wave of pandemic-delayed movies but will it last?

This year’s FIFF reflects the return of China’s film industry to a sense of normalcy, with the recovery of international exchanges and public screenings. Meanwhile, the film industry has been riding the summer momentum, as seen in the record-high box office performance.

By August 31, China’s summer box office (since June 1) had brought in 20.6 billion yuan (US$2.8 billion), an all-time high. The summer box office reached only 9.1 billion yuan in 2022, given strict zero-Covid restrictions and the closure of cinemas.

The June 1 to August 31 summer window is the most sought-after period for Chinese filmmakers to release their movies. This year, 155 films were released in the three months, compared with 92 last year.


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China’s ‘golden week’ holiday (September 29 to October 6) is expected to continue the box-office boon. Everbright Securities said that the holiday box office could bring in 5.49 billion to 7.74 billion yuan – more than the 4.46 billion yuan during the holiday week in 2019.

China’s cinema-goers are showing heightened enthusiasm for domestic films this year, with the Tang dynasty-inspired animation 30,000 Miles from Changan, the mystery crime film Lost in the Stars, and the martial arts film Never Say Never accounting for a combined 63 per cent of the overall summer box office.

“The recovery momentum of the film market in 2023 reflects the achievements of the high-quality development of Chinese films, which helps to strengthen national cultural self-confidence,” party mouthpiece People’s Daily said in an editorial on August 8.

China has rolled out a series of measures to boost spending and invigorate China’s post-pandemic economy. The box office achievement this summer is a bright spot amid the nation’s uneven consumption-led economic recovery, considering weaker retail sales and real estate investment.

There is a backlog of movies that were supposed to be released during the pandemic, but they all chose to release this summer

Yue Zheng, China Galaxy International Securities

However, insiders are uncertain as to whether the recovery is sustainable. They are concerned that it would just signal a short-term rebound after three years of Covid disruptions. In addition, China’s film industry is now going through a long transition period where small production companies become more reactive, actors are paid less, and screenwriters struggle to determine what audiences want to see.

Yue Zheng, a researcher with China Galaxy International Securities, said a substantial increase in film quantity and ticket prices are major reasons for the boom in the box office this summer.

“There is a backlog of movies that were supposed to be released during the pandemic, but they all chose to release this summer,” Yue explained. “It shows that the market is confident about this year’s summer season.”

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“The biggest shift has been in the investment structure of a film,” Yue said. “Production companies are more risk averse, so now a film usually has multiple investors. It creates room for blockbusters, but it’s difficult for small-budget movies to survive.

“Compared with 10 years ago, small production companies in China are less willing to make movies by themselves, which is discouraging for diversified movie content in the market.”

China’s film industry developed rapidly from 2014-18 despite rigid censorship. China’s box office not only surpassed the US’ for the first time in 2015, but many independent productions were circulating through international film festivals, such as Black Coal, Thin Ice; and Blind Massage, which won the Golden Bear and the Silver Bear awards at the 64th Berlin international film festival.

Sun Qingwen, a public relations worker at a medium-sized film and television production company in Beijing, said production companies like theirs are faced with insufficient-capital risks.

“We saw many filming projects halted directly at Hengdian World Studio because of the lockdown in the past few years,” Sun said. “But even if there was no filming, there were still daily expenses.

“Even if everything has returned back to normal, investments and the production of films will not be as active as in previous years. For most of the small and medium-sized companies, the budgets are very tight.”

The pandemic mainly hit small production companies. In 2020 alone, 5,000 smaller film and TV companies went bankrupt in China, according to research by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

The opportunities for actors in the market have also been shrinking since the pandemic, and there is no sign of recovery this year, according to Ma Ding, a Heilongjiang native who has been acting in the film industry since 2013.

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“Many crews at [Hengdian World Studios] are now making mini-dramas that will be released on social media to save costs. There are very few big-budget films of real quality in the studio this year, as I see,” Ma said.

She added that actors, on average, are paid about the same now as they were 10 years ago, as most opportunities available to ordinary actors involve low-cost mini-dramas.

“This type of drama has a short shooting period, and very few resources will be invested in the actors, so we can hardly learn anything from it,” Ma said. “That is not ideal for those rookie actors’ career development.”

Ma also observed that the film industry’s current hurdles point to the need for a long period of adjustment.

“One thing that all players in the field must adjust to, mentally, is the fact that we don’t have many projects in case of an economic downturn,” Ma said.

“Another thing is that we need to catch up with what the audience is paying attention to right now. For example, young people prefer not to have children now and pursue independence. So, we need to reconcile with that and produce something they want to see but not the old stuff.”

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