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China's Foreign Box Office

The pandemic crushed cinema worldwide, but foreign films did especially poorly in China in 2020.
August 5, 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic hit the film industry hard. Movie theaters closed and film production stopped for months. As we covered in our newsletter from April 2020, film distribution moved online, with Hollywood studios putting releases up on digital platforms sooner than usual. This trend continued with the studios opening films in theaters and digtially the same weekend (like Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984) or releasing them straight to digital (like Mulan in North America).

In China, the long spring lockdown and mask mandates curbed the spread of COVID-19, most movie theaters reopened in the last half of the year (though many film fans remained hesistant to go). Overall, the film box office in China fell 68%. Foreign film revenues, typically for 40% of the total box office in China, fell even more. Many film releases were postponed. Total foreign film revenues in China fell 86% in 2020.

Of the top 10 grossing films in the U.S. in 2020, only #8 The Croods: A New Age, #9 Tenet, and #10 Wonder Woman 1984 were released after COVID-19 lockdowns in the U.S. Mulan, which was released straight to Disney+ in the U.S., was the third highest grossing foreign film in China. Still, Hollywood was grateful for China in 2020. The North American market fell from $11 billion in 2019 to just $2 billion in 2020.

Hollywood blockbusters (e.g., F9: The Fast Saga has earned $204 million in China this year, compared to $169 million in North America) have often done well in China. Japanese films are doing better in China after being excluded in 2013 and 2014. Stand by Me Doraemon grossed $87 million in China in 2015. The next year, Your Name earned $84 million. In 2019, the 2001 film Spirited Away was re-released in China and took in $69 million. South Korean entertainment of all sorts was hit hard by the 2016 ban that followed Seoul's decision to deploy a U.S. missile defense system. The ban was loosened in 2018 when several films were included in a film festival. Many hoped that Academy Award winning Parasite would be released in China, but that has not yet happened. A Chinese-produced film, Catman, starring a K-pop star Oh Se-hun was to be released in 2017. It was finally approved for a March 2021 release, but was again yanked.