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China Box Office Should Still Pass US Within 5 Years Despite Slump

Sheer numbers and an extraordinarily poor slate of summer films might mean 2016 was a blip on the radar

Hollywood has been bracing for its seemingly imminent usurping as the world’s largest movie market by China, which was forecasted to come as soon as 2017. After a summer drought in the Middle Kingdom, Tinseltown isn’t going to have to hand off the baton just yet – but it will soon.

After growing a staggering 49 percent between 2014 and 2015 to $6.8 billion and continuing to surge in the first half of the year behind the country’s biggest movie ever, China’s yearly box office looks like it will finish essentially flat. That will keep it well behind the U.S. box office, which cleared $11 billion for the first time last year and sits at $10.7 billion as of Dec. 21, with Christmas season still to come.

While a major factor in China’s plateau has been the reduction of exceedingly generous online ticketing subsidies — you used to be able to see new films in Imax 3D for $5 or so — China’s film industry had an unseasonably ice cold summer, and probably won’t get that unlucky again.

That’s a major reason why Jonathan Papish, an industry analyst at China Film Insider, says he still expects China’s box office to surpass the U.S. in the near future.

“I think China will overtake North America within the next five years,” he told TheWrap.

Papish pointed out that this summer’s slump isn’t likely to repeat itself, and if it had one of last summer’s multiple summer hits it would have been a very different story.

“What we’ll likely see for the next few years or maybe even decade is some up years and some down years,” Papish said. “I think the key variable in this equation is the quality of films released in any given year. If this summer had another ‘Monster Hunt’ or ‘Jian Bing Man’ or even ‘Goodbye Mr. Loser,’ we’d have seen 30 to 35 percent growth in 2016.”

All three of those films (plus “Lost in Hong Kong”) were released between July and September 2015 and made at least $186 million in China, with “Monster Hunt” topping out at $382 million — just a hair behind “Furious 7,” China’s highest grossing movie of 2015, and at that point, all-time. China traditionally imposes an unofficial summer blackout period over much of July and August, clearing the field for local fare like “Monster Hunt” to do monster numbers.

But this year, after “The Mermaid” burst out of the gates in February to become the country’s top-grossing film ever with $527 million, Chinese cinema kind of ran out of gas. No other homegrown movie cleared the $200 million mark, and the highest-grossing summer movie was “Operation Mekong,” with $170 million.

And while a handful of imported films such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” were allowed in during the summer, it’s not like they cannibalized Chinese films. “Warcraft,” a movie that made more than four times as much money in China than in the U.S., was the only Hollywood movie released over the summer that cracked the top 18 of the Chinese box office.

Hollywood knows better than any industry that nothing is a sure thing, not even growth in China. But Papish said he wouldn’t expect this year to be a trend as long as the release schedule has just a few more monsters.