China's box office increased by 50% to $180m in 2004,according to figures from the country's State Administration of Radio, Film andTelevision (SARFT). The figure far surpasses industry estimates of 30% growth.

Although US imports had a good year, local productions werethe clear winners, accounting for 55% of total box office compared with about50% the previous year.

The three biggest films were all classified as localproductions (technically all three were Hong Kong-China co-productions) andleft US blockbusters trailing far behind. Hong Kong director Stephen Chow's Kung-FuHustle took the top slot with $20.3m followed by two films from mainlanddirectors - Zhang Yimou's House Of Flying Daggers with $18.5m and FengXiaogang's A World Without Thieves with $13.3m.

A clutch of US films also performed well. Lord Of TheRings: The Return Of The King took just over $10m, followed by The DayAfter Tomorrow ($10m), Troy ($8m) and Spider-Man 2 ($6m).

The figures are encouraging for a market with a piracy rateestimated at 95%.

Not surprisingly, local exhibitors are feeling bullish."Chinese people currently spend an average of $0.10 (RMB 0.8) at the cinemaeach year. If this grows to just $1.25, we are looking at more than a tenfoldincrease in revenues," said Ren Zhonglun, president of the Shanghai Film Groupwhich operates China's biggest cinema chain, the Shanghai United Circuit (SUC).

It appears that 2004 was the year in which the marketfinally started to benefit from an increase in private investment, both foreignand domestic, in exhibition infrastructure following the loosening of statecontrols.

For a full analysis of China's box office in 2004, see thisweek's edition of Screen International.