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Chinese holiday box office takings down as movie bubble bursts

Box office takings over the National Day break fell this year for the first time in a decade as the air continued to come out of the silver screen bubble.

Chinese cinema takings over the week-long holiday were down 15 per cent year on year to 1.58 billion yuan (HK$1.84 billion), according to online movie ticket seller Maoyan.

China is the world’s second-biggest movie market and annual ticket sales surged from 6 billion yuan in 2009 to 44 billion yuan last year. In 2014, the box office total was 29.6 billion yuan.

But much of the growth was attributed to “ticket subsidies”, with mainland movie producers and distributors paying tens of millions of yuan to online platforms to sell tickets at discounted prices, inflating sales, Caixin magazine reported. That was until the film regulator clamped down on the once-rampant practice.

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This year’s holiday takings were down 280 million yuan on 2015 despite theatres screening 17 movies compared to last year’s 14.

Rao Shuguang, secretary general of the China Film Association, said this year’s takings were a better reflection of underlying demand. “There were a lot of ticket subsidies … last year. After the authorities’ crackdown, these irregularities have been effectively restrained,” China News Service quoted Rao as saying.

Many analysts had predicted China would overtake the United States as the world’s biggest movie market, forecasting 60 billion yuan in ticket sales this year. But now 50 billion yuan would be tough to meet, the Legal Evening News reported yesterday.

Chinese takings in the first three quarters were up just 8.2 per cent to 35.4 billion yuan, with September yielding 2.29 billion yuan, well short of the 3.42 billion yuan a year earlier.

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Peking University professor Chen Shaofeng said the decline might encourage filmmakers to produce higher quality films. “Many films made in China over the years have been copycats of ones that already proved successful,” Chen said.

Nathan Jin, from film industry consultancy ENT Group, said audiences were more selective and demanding about quality. “They will check what the feeling is about movies to decide whether to go to cinemas,” he said.

Jin said the popularity of video broadcasting websites that showed films within a week or two of ending their cinema run had also drawn away audiences. “In the past, people had to wait for months before the films were on the internet. Now this waiting period has been largely cut,” he said.