That’s a Wrap: 2015’s Top China Film Stories and Trends

China's movie ambitions on display at the National Film Museum in Beijing—Photo credit

China’s movie ambitions on display at the National Film Museum in Beijing—drnan tu via Flickr/Creative Commons

The China Film Insider team wishes you a happy 2016. Thank you for reading and for sharing our work with your friends and colleagues as we continue to grow in the new year.

— Jonathan Landreth, Sky Canaves, Pang-chieh Ho, and Jonathan Papish.

  1. The box-office booms. Again.

China’s box office revenues grew at a blistering pace in 2015, up nearly 50% from the previous year, driven by huge growth in theater construction in the so-called third- and fourth-tier cities in the nation’s interior, as the world’s second biggest economy becomes poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest movie market 2017. Hollywood has been taking notice, leading to claims of self-censorship and pandering to Chinese authorities and audiences.

  1. Monster Hunt breaks records

Seven of the 10 highest-grossing films in China in 2015 were domestic productions. Marking a new high in Chinese animation, the live-action-plus-animation feature Monster Hunt, directed by Raman Hui (Shrek the Third), grossed over $381 million in ticket sales, more than any film in Chinese box office history except Hollywood import Furious 7. Other homegrown films such as the less-expensive-to-make titles Lost in Hong Kong and Goodbye Mr. Loser racked up huge numbers by appealing to domestic tastes for lighthearted comedy, and were aided by protectionist practices that give the best release dates around holidays to local films and shut out imported competition.

  1. Ticket fraud allegations taint market progress

Monster Hunt’s box office glory was tarnished by allegations of questionable ticketing practices aimed at maximizing the appearance of sales.  Producer Edko Films acknowledged giving away millions worth of tickets towards the end of Monster Hunt’s theatrical run for “public welfare,” while theaters reportedly scheduled screenings every 15 minutes around the clock to “sold out” audiences. In a similar case, the heads of China’s top private studios complained publicly of shady practices that gave a state-backed military film the edge over Hollywood import Terminator Genisys.

  1. Greater industry regulation on the way

High-level allegations of ticketing fraud moved regulators to issue new rules on ticket sales, launch an official online box office reporting platform, and reach an agreement with the Motion Picture Association of America that will allow Hollywood studios to audit Chinese box office receipts.   The latest draft of the long-awaited Film Industry Promotion Law, released publicly in November, would codify the framework for box office regulation and add penalties for fraud.

  1. The quality conundrum

In Xi Jinping’s October 2014 speech on the arts—released publicly a year later, in 2015—the Chinese President railed against the numerous problems facing China’s creative industries: “plagiarism, imitation, stereotypes and repetition, assembly-line production, and fast-food consumption,” to name a few, and many in the industry openly acknowledge the shoddy feel of most films. High profile plagiarism and copyright infringement claims have surrounded some of this year’s big domestic movies, including Goodbye Mr. Loser, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, and Mojin—The Lost Legend.

  1. The “IP” hunt is on

In China, the abbreviation IP stands for more than intellectual property: it refers to stories with an existing audience that will follow as they are retold across different media platforms. IP was the industry buzzword of 2015. Online fiction has become a key source of IP and new film scripts, leading an executive from one new studio to suggest a diminished role for traditional screenwriters in the filmmaking process, a call that sparked an outcry in the ranks of beleaguered writers.

  1. Major new players enter the game

China’s big three tech companies—Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (collectively known as BAT)—are all investing heavily in content and have established film studios. Their ambitions go beyond making movies, however, as they aim to merge content production with a range of business lines that include ticketing, merchandise sales, gaming, social media, and online video streaming. Other deep-pocketed newcomers shaking up the industry include the property-focused Dalian Wanda Group and consumer electronics maker LeTV.

  1. A socialist vision of the arts

Even as new entrants change the face of moviemaking and marketing in China, the government continues to promote traditional values from the top down, with President Xi aiming to leave a lasting mark on arts and culture. A media industry self-discipline pledge and ongoing controls over content (especially from overseas) seek to limit perceived negative influences on audiences, while a resurgence in patriotic works is seen with productions such as the Hundred Regiments Offensive and a 3D film version of a popular revolutionary opera.

  1. Chinese film’s global reach remains tiny

While President Xi called on the industry to make films that can gain acclaim around the world, not since Ang Lee’s 2000 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has a Chinese-language film managed to resonate with overseas audiences. (It remains the top-grossing foreign language film of all time in the United States, and was made by a an American director with roots in Tawian, not in the mainland film industry). Efforts to develop a serious Oscar contender with the collaboration of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud helming the adaptation of bestselling novel Wolf Totem backfired when the Academy deemed the film insufficiently Chinese for consideration, and the film had limited success at the U.S box office.

  1. China’s outbound media investment grows

Last but not least, China continues to make its mark in Hollywood just as it does in the rest of the world: with money. The most notable Chinese-funded films of 2015 included The Martian (Bona Film Group), Furious 7, Jurassic World (both from China Film Group) , Mission—Impossible: Rogue Nation (Alibaba Pictures, China Movie Channel), and Southpaw (Wanda Pictures). Broader deals, such as the Warner Bros.-China Media Capital joint venture, Bruno Wu’s $1.6 billion film fund, and an 18-film partnership between Huayi Bros. and STX Entertainment are all signs of bigger things to come in 2016 and beyond.