China’s Lunar New Year Moviegoing Record — How’s That Foam Taste?

China’s record-breaking Chinese New Year holiday may not express the exact direction of the box office for the rest of the year.

The week-long Chinese New Year moviegoing period ended with a record RMB 3.38 billion (US$492.4 million) in ticket sales this year according to official data — a 9.5 percent increase over last year’s record haul — but a close inspection of the numbers reveals the growth to be something short of robust.

First off, China’s new box office reporting system, implemented at the outset of the New Year holiday on January 28, now incorporates online ticketing service fees into a film’s total box office. This RMB 3-5 ($0.50-$0.75) per ticket surcharge gives the appearance of increased revenue, especially during peak moviegoing periods and opening weekends when consumers are enticed to buy heavily discounted tickets online. The effect can vary: for smaller films that build momentum through word of mouth, the inflated total can be negligible; for blockbusters and fan-driven films built on pre-release hype and online pre-sales, as much as 8 percent can come from service fees.

Moreover, the added revenue is not divided amongst distributors and movie theaters, instead it goes straight into the coffers of China’s third-party ticketing apps. The result has the effect of including the foam from a fountain soda in calculating the volume of your drink, and has left industry observers screaming “Why don’t you just add the cost of popcorn to the box office too?!”

The majority of box office tracking websites in China have adopted the new system, and box office figures cited by The Hollywood Reporter and Variety now also include these service fees.

At CFI, however, we will continue to report box office totals provided by reputable Chinese sources still capable of collecting data according to the old system, without the addition of service fees. This will leave readers with a more accurate picture of the industry’s true growth.

And so, exclusive of the ticket surcharge, Lunar New Year box office revenue came to RMB 3.148 billion ($458.6 million), or 3.3 percent growth over 2016.

Even here, the numbers are deceptive. More than 10,000 new screens were added in the last year, a staggering 25 percent increase, but total admissions during this year’s holiday rose only 6.5 percent to 89 million, with average attendance per screening dropping from 59 moviegoers last year to 46 this year — signs that China’s boom in cinema construction may be outpacing consumer demand.

In terms of individual film box office performance, Stanley Tong’s Jackie Chan-starring Kung Fu Yoga (功夫瑜伽) and Han Han’s Duckweed (乘风破浪) are the stand-out hits of the 2017 Lunar New Year holiday. Despite debuting well behind Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (西游伏妖篇) and Buddies In India (大闹天竺) that leveraged advance buzz into huge pre-sales and attendance across the first three days of their release, both Kung Fu Yoga and Duckweed have ridden a steady wave of positive word of mouth to the top of the daily box office charts.

Below are the box office results through Monday, February 6:

Next Friday sees the release of xXx: The Return of Xander Cage that is getting a huge promotional push thanks to Paramount’s new partnership with local marketing firm Huahua Media. In addition, the casting of local stars Donnie Yen and Kris Wu will likely propel the sequel to breakout success in lower-tier Chinese cities. Stay tuned for more in this Thursday’s On Screen China.