Chinese cinemabox office returns are set to surpass those of the US by 2020, according to state media. That means high revenue growth for cinema operators there, who are now branching into making movies as well as showing them. Add in acquisitions of foreign theatre chains, and a Chinese-produced blockbuster on US screens is coming soon - if China's government can lay off the propaganda.
Chinese cinema has two big things going for it. First, money. Box office returns reached a record level of 20 billion yuan ($3.3 billion) in 2013, up some 35 per cent since 2012, according to state newswire Xinhua. Ticket prices in big cities are comparable with the US - though wages are a fraction as high. China's largest listed cinema operator, Huayi Brothers, has doubled its revenue since 2009. By contrast, US box office grew only 12 per cent from 2008 to 2012, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Second, the film-making industry in the People's Republic is still in the 1940s - in a good way. Ownership of both studios and cinemas is allowed, something US trustbusters stamped on decades ago. Huayi made about half its money from producing films in 2012, according to Everbright Securities. Wanda Culture Industry Group, owned by Chinese tycoon Wang Jianlin, is spending 50 billion yuan on developing a studio park in Qingdao.
The next step is to spread those synergies abroad. Wanda bought ailing American cinema chain AMC in 2012 for $2.7 billion. It has now relisted it while keeping control. Talks over buying a European chain such as Odeon and UCI fizzled in 2013, but could be revived. There's a lot to be said for having a say on what shows where.
So far, the biggest drag has been a lack of inspiration. Chinese blockbusters tend to be heavy on nationalist symbolism, and unflattering content is nixed. Biopics of Confucius don't resonate with global audiences. But there is plenty of room to innovate. Top-flight creatives, just like cinemas, can be bought. It may not be long before Chinese movies take off like butter on popcorn.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.