The Chinese box office got off to a bright start in 2009, boosting the theory cinema booms in a downturn. Can it continue throughout the year?

The Chinese box office has had an outstanding start to 2009 with total box office to March reaching $183m (rmb1.25bn), almost double the same period last year. Estimates suggests the annual box office gross will reach $732m (rmb5bn) if the market holds steady in the coming months.

Indeed, the theory that box office benefits during times of economic recession seems to have been proven right in mainland China, especially in January and early February. In January alone, the total gross excluding rural markets was $93.7m (rmb640m), double the gross of January 2008.

The New Year and Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) holidays (January 24 to February 1), were the major factors behind the strong January box office. Among the January releases, John Woo’s war epic Red Cliff Part 2 grossed around $36.6m (rmb250m); Ning Hao’s black comedy Crazy Racer and Media Asia’s romantic comedy Look For A Star both grossed around $15.4m (rmb105m); and Paramount’s Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa took $4.5m (rmb31m).

The surprise hit was local animation Pleasant Goat And Big Bad Wolf, made for less than $1m, but earning over $11.7m (rmb80m) in Chinese cinemas. Pleasant Goat is an adaptation of a well-known Chinese animated TV series, helping draw Chinese families in the holidays. It was jointly released by Polybona, Shanghai East Film & TV Distribution, China Film Group and Guangdong Film Corporation.

The period from February to March is generally seen as a low season at the Chinese box office when non-US films are imported into the market on a flat-fee basis. Paul Verhoeven’s Second World War thriller Black Book, Taiwanese hit Cape No.7 and Daniel Cohen’s French comedy Two Worlds (Les Deux Mondes) are among the most successful flat-fee foreign films so far this year. Black Book, released by Huaxia and Shanghai Huayu Films, grossed $2.3m (rmb16m), Cape No.7, released by China Film Group, made $2.9m (rmb20m) and Two Worlds, released by Huaxia and Guangdong Film Corporation, took $3.7m (rmb25.4m).

Among foreign films imported on a revenue-sharing basis, the best performers in the three months were Dragonball Evolution ($9.1m), Transporter 3 ($8.6m), Valkyrie ($8.5m) and Slumdog Millionaire ($7.8m). The latter, released by China Film Group, is the highest-grossing UK film ever in China. Transporter 3, from China Film Group and Huaxia, is the top-grossing French film. However, the combined gross of the four foreign films is still less than the gross of Red Cliff Part 2.

The strong performance during the first quarter has boosted confidence within the Chinese industry. “These days, if you can get your film shown in the theatres, you won’t lose money,” says one Guangdong-based cinema manager. “In future, a decent quality film will at least gain rmb50m and breaking rmb100m will become more normal.”

The US studios have an opportunity to win back market share with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which opened on May 3, Star Trek (released on May15), Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen (June 28) and Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince (July 15).

China Top 10, Jan-March 2009

            Film (origin)      Distributor        us$       rmb

1          Red Cliff Part 2 (Ch)    China Film Group         $36.6m            rmb250m

2          Crazy Racer (Ch)         China Film Group         $15.9m            rmb108.3m

3          Look For A Star (Ch)  Huayi Brothers $15m   rmb102.5m

4          Pleasant Goat And Big Bad Wolf (Ch)  Shanghai Eastern, Polybona      $11.7m            rmb80m

5          Dragonball Evolution (US-HK) CFG, Huaxia Film Dist’n          $9.1m  rmb62m

6          Transporter 3 (Fr)        CFG, Huaxia Film Dist’n          $8.6m  rmb58.5m

7          Valkyrie (US-Ger)        CFG, Huaxia Film Dist’n          $8.5m  rmb58m

8          Slumdog Millionaire (UK)        China Film Group         $7.8m  rmb53m

9          All’s Well, End’s Well (Ch)      Enlight Film       $5.6m  rmb38.0m

10        Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (US)       CFG, Huaxia Film Dist’n          $4.5m  rmb31m

Source: Screen International, compiled by Sen-Lun Yu