LOS ANGELES — China is the world's second-largest box-office market, and it's growing at a much faster pace than any other — up almost 50 percent over the previous year, to nearly $7 billion. And in February, the Chinese box office actually beat the United States for the first time, with $650 million in receipts to $640 million in the United States.
At more than $11 billion in receipts, according to film industry tracking firm Rentrak, 2015 was the biggest domestic box-office year ever for the U.S., but it was only up about 7 percent over last year and barely edged 2013's performance, which was the previous high-water mark. On the other hand, China's robust growth over the last year put it on pace to surpass the U.S. box office by 2017.
And that's despite Chinese movie watchers making their way to the cinema at a much lower rate than Americans and South Koreans. While Americans go to the theater more than three times a year on average — and South Koreans even more often — the average Chinese person makes 0.8 visits, according to CCTV. Granted, some of that might have to do with the fact that seeing a movie is relatively more expensive in China, but there's clearly room to grow.
And as China becomes more important to the global film industry, plenty of local films are now co-produced with American studios, which have found it prudent to get some skin in the game, given the booming Chinese movie market — and relative maturity of the one at home.
While 2016 is likely to be the American box office's last hurrah as the world's biggest movie market, given how fast China's grown — and the fact that this year's "Star Wars" effect isn't really repeatable — that's no guarantee. But if China does end up taking the top spot ahead of schedule, it could come down to the performance of two mega-budget fantasy action films — "Journey to the West" and "The Great Wall" -- each co-produced with an American studio . And unlike most Chinese movies, they could have a material impact on the domestic box office, as well.
‘Journey To The West’
This Mandarin-language film, which does not yet have a confirmed release date in the U.S. or China, is based on the 16th-century classic Chinese novel, also called "Journey to the West." Much of the cast returns from a popular 1986 Chinese TV series with the same title, which has achieved cult classic status in China, and has been rebroadcast every year since 1988.
The movie, produced by Paramount Pictures along with a handful of Chinese firms, should be a smash hit in a country that already has a deep affinity to that particular epic tale — not entirely different from America's "Star Wars" mania. And its 3D visual effects, which should look awesome on the hundreds of Imax screens popping up in Chinese multiplexes, may well make "Journey to the West" China's top-grossing film of 2016.
But the movie's broader appeal outside China remains uncertain. Sure, it's going to look great, but Americans don't know the story or the actors, and the dialogue is in Chinese. The hype the film is certain to get in China could motivate the American audience to see it out of curiosity, but it's hard to see it doing massive numbers in the U.S. And a bigger-than-expected gap between the movie's performance in China and the United States could help nudge China into the top spot early.
‘The Great Wall’
The year's other long-anticipated action adventure, "The Great Wall," could have a different effect. It's an English-language Chinese epic starring Matt Damon — a known figure in China from his starring role in "The Martian," which reeled in more than $50 million on its opening weekend in the Middle Kingdom. With a production budget estimated at about $135 million, "The Great Wall" will be the most expensive movie shot entirely in China.
The movie, produced by Legendary Pictures in conjunction with China's Le Vision Pictures, is director Zhang Yimou's first English-language film. It's also co-star Andy Lau's first Hollywood production.
Unlike "Journey to the West," "The Great Wall" features known American actors such as Damon and Willem Defoe, is being made in English, and is not based on a classic novel that needs little introduction in China but a lot in the United States. The movie's plot focuses on a joint force of European mercenaries and Chinese fighters battling a monster on the Great Wall, which is tailor-made for both audiences.
And so while "Journey to the West" might be China's most economically important film of 2016, "The Great Wall" might be its most impactful. If it can successfully bridge both movie markets, it could boost China's box-office haul past even optimistic projections while proving a new growth strategy for the U.S. We already know big American blockbusters play well in China. Next year, we might find out if the reverse is also true.