As global and local businesses eagerly await a return to consumer spending in China, one industry in particular is already gaining momentum.
This year, box office receipts in China topped 10 billion yuan ($1.5 billion), the earliest in a year.
The film's production boom came after authorities lifted most of the country's strict COVID-19 policies in December. The resulting wave of infections was so rapid and widespread that nearly all of China's 1.4 billion people were infected with SARS-CoV-2 within two months.
By no longer requiring environmental health code permits and other restrictions to visit movie theaters, residents can resume their normal entertainment activities.
"During the New Year holidays, I watched three movies," said Li Yuan, a graduate student from the western metropolis of Chengdu. "And there's something else I want to see."
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This year's record ticket sales are all the more notable after the poor results of the past two years. The turnover for the whole year of 2022 is only 30 million yuan, which can be achieved by the middle of this year.
Sales in 2023 were even higher than in 2019, the year before the pandemic devastated the industry, according to tracker Maoyan.
Moreover, domestic films still dominated.
Leading the way is Full Red River, the latest film from director Zhang Yimou, considered by many to be China's greatest director. The historical drama, which combines suspense and comedy, has grossed 3.7 billion yuan in ticket sales in just 12 days since its premiere and is now the 10th-highest-grossing Chinese film of all time.
Guo Fan-directed sci-fi film The Wandering Earth 2 is a prequel to the fifth highest-grossing Chinese film, The Wandering Earth.
Of the top 10 films released in China, only one was foreign. Avatar: The Way of the Water has grossed 1.7 billion yuan in Chinese cinemas since December 12, more than double the figure of the top two Chinese films.
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Moviegoers MarketWatch spoke to were thrilled to see the blockbuster return to theaters without health restrictions.
Ma Kai, an art student from Beijing, said he struggled to decide which movies to watch on weekends because there were more choices than ever before. He chose Zhang Full Red River.
"Oh, I saw it last week," he told MarketWatch when asked if he was interested in seeing a foreign film as the sequel to Avatar.
A number of other Hollywood films that have found success in the West will soon debut in China. Marvel Studios' Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantum Mania will be released on February 7 and 17, respectively.
Marvel hopes to return to the Chinese film market after a long absence due to the pandemic. According to ENDATA, the studio's last film in China was 2019's Avengers: Endgame, with ticket sales of 4.25 billion yuan.
Meanwhile, rival Marvel DC announced last month that Shazam! Wrath of the Gods will be released later this year.
With the virus largely eradicated within its borders in 2020 and 2021, China's film industry has grown rapidly and overtaken North America as the world's top market. A year later, China again faced an alarming virus outbreak, strict quarantines, restrictions on theaters and a limit on the number of American shows in the country.
The recession has put North America back on top.
“The good news for China [as a film market], and for American studios and their blockbusters, is that a new era of cinematic relaxation has begun in China, starting with the release of Avatar: The elementalist. In 2023, the market will become more open and inclusive,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, told MarketWatch.
"And that's good news for anyone interested in the success of all films in all countries of the global film landscape."
Tanner Brown covers China for MarketWatch and Barron's.