Industry experts in China believe the country's 2007 box office could break the $400m (rmb3bn) milestone as the number of cinemas and admissions continues to grow.

According to monthly statistics from the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), total box office for the first half of the year reached $138.8m (rmb1.1bn), while the figure through to the end of July stands at $187.7m (rmb1.4bn).

As the January-June figure represents a 30% increase on the first half of 2006, industry experts claim the $400m (rmb3bn) barrier is now in reach. Box office has been growing at a rate of 30% for the past two years, reaching $265m (rmb2bn) in 2005 and $344m (rmb2.6bn) in 2006.

Summer heat

The summer season has seen even greater increases, with box-office grosses up by around 60% in June and July, compared to the same period last year, according to Beijing-based cinema owners.

Around 100 new cinemas and more than 700 screens have opened in China so far this year, increasing the number of admissions by around 33% from January to June this year.

Hollywood blockbusters have also had a strong run. Four films have broken the $13m (rmb100m) threshold: Spider-Man 3, Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End, Transformers and Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix. Only nine films had previously broken this barrier since China opened its market to imported films in 1994.

It is estimated that foreign films took around 60% of China's box office through to the end of June, while local Chinese films have been underperforming.

Despite some restrictions on the release print numbers, Order Of The Phoenix saw a strong $5.94m (rmb45m) opening in mainland China, according to Beijing and Shanghai-based cinema owners, representing the best first-week gross of all Harry Potter movies in China.

Print reduction

State-owned China Film Group Corporation - the distributor of Order Of The Phoenix and, indeed, the only company allowed to import foreign films - declined to reveal the sales figure as well as the release print counts of the film, which is normally decided by the distribution company. But it is understood the print count is around 450, slightly less than the 530 prints for Transformers.

Some of the Beijing-based cinemas confirmed the rumour that the print numbers were reduced. "(The print count) is not as many as previously expected. I believe the reason is to not bring too much pressure on local films," said Gao Jun, manager of Beijing-based New Film Association.

This year, the only local standouts are Taiwanese pop singer/actor Jay Chou's debut film Secret, and Donnie Yen-starrer Flash Point. Still on release in their third week, Secret had grossed $3.4m (rmb26m) while Flash Point made $3.5m (rmb27m) up to August 14. Both films beat previous first-weekend records for local films this year, grossing $1.3m each (rmb10m) during the first three days.

As there are only two slots left in the quota for revenue-sharing foreign films until the end of the year, the rest of 2007 looks set to be dominated by Chinese-language titles.

Upcoming releases include Ang Lee's Lust, Caution and Jiang Wen's The Sun Also Rises, which will both be released in late September after competing in Venice, while Brothers starring Andy Lau, Triangle and Johnnie To's Linger will be released in October. Peter Ho-sun Chan's The Warlords and Feng Xiaogang's The Assembly will be released on December 13 and 20 respectively.