Director Stephen Chow, wearing the hat, speaks with cast and crew members… (Village Roadshow Pictures…)
BEIJING — China's movie box office topped $3.6 billion in 2013, up about 27% over 2012, with home-grown fare drawing particularly large crowds and driving down Hollywood's share of the market.
Seven of the 10 highest-grossing films were Chinese, data from box office analysis firms Artisan Gateway and EntGroup showed Tuesday.
In first place was Stephen Chow's action-comedy "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons," which took in about $207 million.
Three Hollywood films made the top 10. "Iron Man 3," also the top box-office performer in the U.S., made $124 million for second place. "Pacific Rim" grossed $114 million and "Gravity" took in $73 million.
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All three had prominent Asian elements. The performance of "Pacific Rim" was particularly notable because its China tally surpassed its somewhat underwhelming $101-million result stateside.
But the story of the year was the strength of local productions. In 2012, about 52% of the ticket sales were for foreign films. Domestic fare last year accounted for 59% of box office, or $2.11 billion, according to Artisan Gateway.
Small- and mid-budget movies with contemporary and nostalgic story lines did particularly well.
Among those films were "So Young," a 1990s college romance; Feng Xiaogang's modern satire "Personal Tailor;" "American Dreams in China," a rags-to-riches tale that starts in the 1980s; "Finding Mr. Right," a tale of modern relationships with touches of "Sleepless in Seattle"; and "Tiny Times," a story of materialistic college girls in Shanghai.
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"The big story of 2013 must be the prominence of Chinese films generally, and small- to mid-budget films' outperformance specifically," said Rance Pow, president of Artisan Gateway. "As Chinese filmmakers continue to refine their craft, local audiences are finding relatable stories packaged together with high-production-quality content."
China's box office has exploded in the last decade to become the second-biggest in the world, behind only the United States. Revenue is now 10 times what it was in 2006 but still well below the estimated $10.9 billion in U.S. domestic box office for 2013.
The country has been erecting multiplexes at lightning speed, and China is expected to end the year with about 18,000 screens, less than half the U.S. tally. But China's population is more than three times as large as the United States', so there remains ample room for growth.
In the coming years, most of the screen growth will come in smaller cities, which is likely to affect the types of films that perform well.
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"Audiences increasingly hail from cities and towns smaller than Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen," said prominent Chinese film critic Raymond Zhou. "The aspiration and aesthetics of this demographic form the bedrock of China's market, and they have their own tastes and quirks."
That audience's tastes are plebeian, Zhou added.
"They do not have any patience for art-house fare," he said, adding that 2013 will be remembered "for the spectacular takeoff of China's film market" but will also "go down in history as the year bad movies ruled."
Although Chinese fare is performing better at home, connections between Hollywood and China continued to grow in 2013.
In September, China's Dalian Wanda Group gave $20 million to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' film museum in L.A. Shortly after, a slew of stateside A-listers — including Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Harvey Weinstein — turned up in Qingdao as Wanda, owner of the AMC movie theater chain, unveiled plans for a multibillion-dollar movie studio complex and film investment plan.
Among the Hollywood movies to hit Chinese screens early in 2014 will be the stateside flop "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones," "Ender's Game" and "Saving Santa," an animated film that went directly to video in the U.S. but is getting a 3-D release in China.
The worldwide box-office hit "Despicable Me 2" will finally arrive in China in January, more than half a year after its U.S. release, while "RoboCop" will land on mainland screens Feb. 6, a week earlier than it will open in the United States. The timing of that release, during the Chinese New Year's holiday, may help drive ticket sales.
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