After two, brief years of dominance, China is surrendering the global box office crown back to North America in 2022.

During the darkest days of the pandemic for Hollywood, when most major tentpoles were put on hold or shifted to streaming, China swept past the U.S. in total ticket sales for the first time in movie history in 2020. The country repeated the feat last year, notching $7.3 billion in ticket revenue compared to just $4.5 billion in North America.

But the first half of 2022 has delivered a very different picture. Ticket sales in China totaled only $2.6 billion over the past six months, down 38 percent from the same period in 2021, according to data from exhibition industry consultancy Artisan Gateway. China’s strict “COVID-zero” approach to the pandemic continued to weigh on moviegoing in the country, as major population centers like Shenzhen and Shanghai were plunged into citywide lockdowns in response to omicron flareups. Frosty political relations between Washington and Beijing and an increasingly repressive political climate in China also resulted in fewer Hollywood films being granted release dates there, limiting the volume and frequency of bankable product on offer.

Total sales revenue in North America, meanwhile, made a healthy comeback in the first half of the year, as the studios began restoring exclusive theatrical windows for their biggest releases and pandemic restrictions shifted to the background of civic life. Thanks to huge domestic performances from blockbusters like Top Gun: Maverick ($571 million and counting) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ($410 million) — two titles that were denied release dates in China for vague political reasons — North American ticket revenue reached $3.6 billion in H1 2022, up from just $1 billion during the same period in 2021, according to Artisan Gateway’s estimates (sales are still trailing the pre-pandemic period, however; H1 2019 revenue was $5.7 billion).

The bad news for Hollywood is that U.S. studio films are earning less in China than they have in nearly a decade, despite the theatrical comeback stateside and elsewhere in the world. Tickets sales for Hollywood studio films totaled only $400 million in China in H1, a decline from $700 million last year — and prior to the pandemic, U.S. movies sold $1.9 billion worth of tickets in China in the first half of 2019.

“Pandemic control measures limited China’s H1 2022 gross box office and admissions to 2014-2015 levels, about 57.8 percent of pre-pandemic 1H 2019,” notes Rance Pow, president of Artisan Gateway. “And the gap between Chinese and imported films’ market share widened,” Pow adds, noting that Chinese-language films earned $2.2 billion over the past six months compared to the U.S. studios’ comparatively slight $400 million China take.

China’s box office has been as top-heavy as ever so far this year, with eight films comprising 60 percent of total revenue. The biggest earners were Bona Film Group’s nationalistic war epic The Battle at Lake Changjin II ($626 million), Xing Wenxiong’s Chinese comedy caper Too Cool To Kill ($217 million) and Wen Muye’s hit drama Nice View ($211 million).

Top Gun: Maverick‘s domestic total (now $571 million) could eventually catch up to Battle at Lake Changjin II‘s impressive China haul of $626 million — it’s a close race of rival propagandistic war films in terms of biggest home market sales total. But China still presents no challenge whatsoever to Hollywood moviemaking on a global basis. While Maverick has earned $544.5 million outside of North America (without a China release), Battle at Lake Changjin II has brought in less than $1 million from beyond China’s borders.

Artisan Gateway currently forecasts China’s box office to finish 2022 with approximately $5.2 billion (RMB 35 billion) in total revenue. Any earnings over that figure will be driven by the number and quality of imported films Beijing regulators decide to allow into the market, the company says. Many analysts expect North American ticket revenue to top $7.5 billion this year.

The big Chinese titles that are expected to drive local sales in the second half of the year include: Chen Sicheng’s sci-fi family comedy Mozart in Space (Wanda Media), Alibaba Pictures’ sci-fi Moon Man, comedy thriller Advancing of ZQ (Fun Age); the first film in Beijing Culture’s fantasy franchise Fenshen Trilogy, 3D animation New Gods: Yang Jian (Light Chaser), sci-fi adventure Deep Sea (Beijing Enlight), the long gestating Hong Kong sci-fi Warriors of Future (Media Asia), crime sequel The White Storm 3 (Universe Entertainment), and Bona Film Group’s latest nationalistic epics Anonymous and Ordinary Hero. 

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