Number of screens in urban areas reaches nearly 70,000
After shivering for most of last year through a harsh business winter, China's film industry ended 2019 on a hopeful note.
With the number of screens in urban areas reaching 69,787 — more than any other country — the nation's box offices grossed 64.3 billion yuan ($9.28 billion), up 5.4 percent from 2018, according to the China Film Administration, the sector's top regulator.
By comparison, North America — the world's largest movie market — grossed $11.3 billion, down 4.8 percent year-on-year, according to movie data tracking website Box Office Mojo.
One highlight last year was the strong performance of Chinese blockbusters.
Of the 10 highest-grossing titles, eight were Chinese and the remaining two were from Hollywood. In both 2017 and 2018, six of the top 10 films were made by Chinese studios.
In addition, 47 of the 88 movies that took in more than 100 million yuan at the box office last year were made by Chinese filmmakers.
Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association, said: "Last year, a significant chapter was written in the history of Chinese cinema, reflecting that homegrown films have made great improvement in expanding their diversity.
"The two highest-grossing movies, Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth — which together earned 9.68 billion yuan — boosted the morale of domestic filmmakers," Rao said after Beijing newspaper Securities Daily reported that with 1,884 film and television companies having closed, the local industry was "struggling in a severe winter".
Movies: More diversity hits screens
Ne Zha, the directorial debut feature of animator Yang Yu, better known by his nickname Jiaozi, which translates as dumpling, unexpectedly rescued a flagging summer almost single handedly, becoming the best-performing film last year.
Ne Zha is one of only two films in the history of Chinese cinema to take more than 5 billion yuan, along with action star Wu Jing's blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, released in 2017.
Loosely based on a mythological figure evolving from ancient works of literature, it was the 11th-highest-grossing film worldwide last year, according to Box Office Mojo.
Cao Xiaohui, vice-president of the Beijing Film Academy Animation Institute, said that in addition to Ne Zha, the success of White Snake and The Legend of Hei, released respectively in January and September, show that the country's animators have figured out a way to win larger audiences.
Inspired by one of ancient China's best-known folk tales, White Snake, which tells of the bittersweet love story between a snake spirit and a handsome man, features a number of romantic scenes aimed at younger audiences.
Featuring a blend of martial arts and picturesque landscapes, The Legend of Hei, which centers on an adorable but powerful cat monster, tugged at pet keepers' heartstrings.
Cao said: "In the past, a number of domestic animators wrongly thought that such works should be made for children, making the storylines too naive and unappealing to adults. But after years of learning from top-class foreign counterparts and keeping an element of exploration in the storytelling, domestic animated works have improved a lot."
Taking second place after Ne Zha in the highest-grossing slot, The Wandering Earth, a sci-fi blockbuster adapted from the eponymous novel by China's first Hugo Award winner Liu Cixin, was the 12th top-earning film worldwide.
Along with director Ning Hao's Crazy Alien, also inspired by a novella written by Liu, and other Spring Festival blockbusters such as Pegasus, a comedy hit, The Wandering Earth took the monthly grosses in February to 11.2 billion yuan, the world's highest for a single month.
Edward Cheng, CEO of Tencent Pictures, one of the film's backers, said, "The Wandering Earth employs Chinese-style storytelling to convey the country's values and understanding of a shared future for humankind, as well as demonstrating Chinese ways to solve problems."
Directed by sci-fi fan Guo Fan, the movie is set in the year 2075 and uses 2,003 special-effect shots, 75 percent of them produced by domestic companies.
In the mid-1990s, China introduced an annual quota system for imports of foreign films.
Cui Ting, a film industry observer based in Beijing, said that as a result, before the success of The Wandering Earth, few people believed that a Chinese sci-fi movie could be succeed in the home market, as the local industry lagged far behind Hollywood.
Enthusiastic filmgoers hailed The Wandering Earth as the start of "Year Zero" for Chinese sci-fi productions, a genre which had long struggled to earn recognition.
But a shadow was cast over their expectations when Shanghai Fortress — a sci-fi film in which Shanghai stands as the last hope of resisting an alien invasion — flopped disastrously in August.
Even with a stellar cast teaming up with heartthrob Lu Han and A-list actress Shu Qi, Shanghai Fortress, which reportedly had a budget up to 360 million yuan, took just 123 million yuan at the box office.
In addition, online criticism of its plotlines and special effects saw the film receive 2.9 points out of 10 on Douban, China's most popular review site.
Liu, the novelist, said during the 2019 Science Fiction Conference in Beijing in November: "We should not easily draw conclusions by saying that the door for Chinese sci-fi films to thrive has been opened by just one movie (The Wandering Earth). On the other hand, it's not fair to say that such a door has been closed by a single movie."
Liu said that Chinese sci-fi — including literature and movies — has only just taken off and needs to break free of "bottlenecks" in some aspects, ranging from scriptwriting prop-making.
Meanwhile, a group of talented directors have proved that real-life stories can inspire and spawn blockbusters.
During the National Day holiday in October — one of the country's most lucrative box office seasons — three films triggered unprecedented enthusiasm among moviegoers nationwide, propelling ticket sales for the week to 5.13 billion yuan, a year-on-year rise of nearly 136 percent.
The top earner among the three was My People, My Country, an anthology of seven short stories marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
The other two movies were The Captains, based on the true story of a pilot who had to ensure the safety of 128 passengers and crew members when a plane's windshield became damaged during flight, and The Climbers, which centers on Chinese climbers' ascent of Qomolangma, known in the West as Mount Everest, via the perilous north face in 1960 and 1975.
Yin Hong, deputy chairman of the China Film Association, said the success of these films marks the rise of the Chinese movie industry, especially in post-production.
Cheng, from Tencent Pictures, said: "In recent years, China has produced a string of excellent movies, ranging from Operation Mekong to Operation Red Sea and to My People, My Country. ... These movies easily strike a chord with audiences."
Such films, known in China as "mainstream melody movies", feature adaptations based on real-life events and reflect the country's progress, achievements or revolutionary history.
In the past, movies of this type found it difficult to attract audiences due to their cliched depictions. However, the situation has changed in recent years thanks to blockbusters, which tell more human-interest stories and are studded with nail-biting action sequences and A-list stars.
My People, My Country and The Captain respectively grossed 3.12 billion yuan and 2.9 billion yuan and occupied the fourth- and fifth-highest grossing slots in last year's top 10 movie rankings.
Yin said younger Chinese filmmakers have shown their potential in telling excellent and in-depth stories, exemplified by Better Days, an unlikely youth movie that focuses on school bullying. The film earned 1.55 billion yuan ranked ninth in last year's rankings.
Despite not featuring in the top 10, some domestic films won both international and domestic acclaim last year.
Such works include So Long, My Son, which won best actor and best actress awards at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival; and The Wild Goose Lake, the only Chinese-language film nominated at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.
While Chinese cinema is energetically diversifying genres and themes, Hollywood is seemingly becoming more conservative, mainly producing sequels or spinoffs of lucrative franchises.
Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd film produced by Marvel Studios, took 4.25 billion yuan in China to rank the third highest-grossing film in the country last year. The other import in the top 10 was Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, a spinoff of the Fast & Furious franchise, which ranked 10th.
Figures from the China Film Administration show that 1,037 movies were produced domestically last year. However, the top 10 took 30.3 billion yuan, or 47 percent of the box office tally for the entire year, indicating that a majority of filmmakers behind small- and middle-budget movies have been struggling to survive.
Rao, from China Film Critics Association, said, "A film usually needs two to three years' preparation. So, most of the runaway hits last year received their financing in 2017 or even earlier, when the market was more prosperous and attractive to cash-rich investors.
"But blockbusters in 2019 received more feedback and online praise than those in the recent past, showing that Chinese filmmakers are putting more effort into seeking breakthroughs in quality and storytelling, and giving us expectations of a promising future."