Screen editor Matt Mueller discusses the future of cinemas and a slow-down at China’s box office.

From the state of US tax incentives to the story behind Netflix’s all-rights acquisition of a Cannes favourite, our latest issue of Screen International shines a spotlight on a number of timely topics.

But one recent development jumps out to me in this issue: the significant slow-down in the China box office. As Liz Shackleton reports in her insightful feature (page 30-31), while 2016 got off to a momentous start (box office increased 51% year-on-year in Q1), since April both local films and Hollywood imports have significantly under-performed.

This year is still showing growth (an 8.3% rise after three quarters), but the marked deceleration has jolted analysts and industry. The slow-down comes despite screen count increasing by another 6,000 this year to reach 38,000. China’s box office was supposed to overtake North America in 2017, but that is now being questioned.

Reasons behind the slow-down include the tightening Chinese economy, weaker content compared with 2015 and the end of online ticketing subsidies, but some feel it shouldn’t be taken as overly alarming, saying the trend is a natural progression towards a more mature market. Factors in this analysis include the local production industry forging a stronger development sector and, as revealed by Screen International, the recently announced launch of a sanctioned arthouse circuit in the country, following years of lobbying.

Next year will be another momentous one in China — the market’s import quotas are up for discussion with the World Trade Organisation. If attendances continue to plateau or looks like stagnating, the Chinese government may feel further pressure to relax those quotas.

While one analyst discounts the suggestion that Chinese moviegoers — still a relatively fledgling audience incinematic terms — will ever migrate en masse to online digital platforms, Curzon Group CEO Philip Knatchbull said at the recent Screen Exhibitors’ Forum that he believes overall cinema admissions will drop significantly in the next five to 10 years, as people increasingly seek “to consume films in a different way”. Knatchbull also predicted a decline in the mega-screen multiplex, in favour of more boutique chains such as his own Curzon Cinemas.

The indie boss’s comments might be deemed fighting talk within exhibition circles, but Knatchbull also emphasised that passion for cinemagoing among film lovers will lead him to grow his chain from its current 18 sites to “30-35 with 100 screens”. His point that cinema audiences are ageing and not being replaced by younger moviegoers is a valid one. How to engage the newer generations is a question that needs answering sooner rather than later.

Other panellists at our inaugural Screen Exhibitors’ Forum, which we held for independent UK exhibitors at Everyman Screen On The Green in London, discussed how new technologies could help exhibitors meet the challenges posed by HD big-screen home entertainment. Everyone in the business is looking for an edge, whether that be to their script or in their cinema. Fundamentally, they are working towards the same goal, however: keeping audiences in love with movies.