The numbers always dazzle in China.
The country has more than 60,000 movie screens, the most of any nation on Earth, almost all built within the last 10 years. It boasts more paid subscribers to streaming-video services than the rest of the globe combined, and Netflix doesn’t even operate there. It’s home to the world’s largest number of internet users — at least 800 million, roughly two and a half times the entire U.S. population — and all but 2% of them access the web via mobile, making for the greatest penetration of mobile payment use. More than 90% of movie tickets are sold online.
The market potential of China’s 1.4 billion people has long held Western companies in thrall, leaving them drooling over even the smallest slice of the action. That includes the burgeoning entertainment sector, where Hollywood and rising local players are jockeying to attract Chinese consumers whose spending power and demand for quality continue to grow.
But beneath the market’s sparkling surface are riptides that have recently made the Middle Kingdom a trickier place to do business than it already was. International and domestic politics are roiling the waters now in ways whose outcome is difficult to predict.
Economic tensions across the Pacific are at their highest in years, as the trade war declared by the Trump administration drags on, with a new round of tariffs announced by the White House earlier this month. So far, entertainment has managed to escape the escalating conflict, though there have been reports of an unofficial ban on some U.S. content in China, particularly in the streaming space. Talks on further liberalizing the entertainment sector have ground to a halt.
At the same time, China’s internal censorship regime has kicked into high gear as the country gets ready to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Heavy-handed government intervention has embarrassed China abroad, with Chinese films abruptly yanked from high-profile festivals, and stifled creativity at home, with local content makers uncertain where the red lines are. Some observers ominously compare the tightening to the dark days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when the arts were shanghaied into serving as propaganda.
Yet for all that, China remains a highly dynamic and increasingly sophisticated market that carries potentially huge rewards. No serious international entertainment player can afford to ignore the Middle Kingdom and its rapidly expanding middle class — estimated now at up to 400 million people. Even if progress is two steps forward and one step back, the resulting single stride in the right direction can translate into millions of dollars, hundreds of jobs and countless happy shareholders.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the film industry. Despite a slowdown in local production, in the past six months alone China has notched its second-highest-grossing film ever, the sci-fi epic “The Wandering Earth” ($691 million at the local box office), and released “Nezha,” which hit Chinese theaters July 26 and took just nine days to become the country’s biggest-ever animated film ($510 million and counting). Hollywood tentpoles have done well, too, including “Avengers: Endgame” ($616 million) and “The Lion King” ($117 million so far). A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study forecasts that next year, China will finally achieve the elusive goal of overtaking the U.S. as the world’s No. 1 film market.
But the relationship between the Chinese and U.S. industries has changed markedly over the past two years, entering a new phase that those who recall only the flashiness of the big-spending Wanda era will have to learn to navigate. Gone are the days of China simply buying up U.S. companies for silly prices, naively entering into often unfavorable slate-finance deals or partnering in collaborations like the ill-fated Matt Damon-starring co-production “The Great Wall.” The mainland is now looking to do things its own way, and has big ambitions to create works that can both tap into its huge local market and make waves overseas.
“We’re no longer merely worshipping or copying the West, since we’ve seen that Western strategies of production or content development aren’t guarantees of success. China now knows that it needs to stand up on its own,” says John Qu, president of Citic Guoan New Bridge Studios. “America’s attitude can’t be ‘I’m successful in Hollywood, so I’ll be successful in China.’ Just because you were once the emperor that everyone bowed down to doesn’t mean you’ll always be emperor.”
China’s film industry has been running full-bore to catch up to — and in some cases even surpass — international standards in recent years. Just look at the Wanda-built Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, a studio complex that was developed Chinese style: at enormous scale and breathtaking speed. Globally, 20 soundstages would make for a large facility; QOMM, now run by real estate conglomerate Sunac China Holdings, has twice that number. One of the soundstages, at nearly 108,000 square feet, is the largest in the world. All were designed and accredited by Britain’s Pinewood Studios.
“It’s massive to go from zero to 40,” says Tommie Curran, QOMM’s former director of production. “Nowhere in the history of cinema has any company built a studio of that size from nothing into something in four to five years.”