While Hollywood ended 2022 by securing a major release in China for Avatar: The Way of Water, the Chinese box office suffered a massive drop due to a variety of widespread issues and both the film and the country’s market saw disappointing figures.
As reported by Deadline, China’s box office sank a total of 36 percent over the course of 2022, currently valued at $4.35 billion. For comparison, the country’s box office worth in 2021 reached a little over $7 billion and appeared to be recovering from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the industry-wide shutdown.
However, though cinema appeared to return, the Communist Party centennial led to a focus on domestically produced films and propaganda projects, which was part of a larger cultural shift. What this meant for Hollywood was that fewer films were being allowed on to screens, despite making it through official censors and the fact that the official quota for imported foreign films remained at 34. While films such as Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals never made it to screens, propaganda films such as The Battle at Lake Changjin and its sequel earned significant numbers. The film grossed $913 million at the box office.
The Way of Water was one of just a handful of Hollywood films allowed to hit theater screens in 2022. However, despite enthusiasm from industry execs, including IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond, the film has failed to live up to expectations. While it has earned positive reviews from audiences, the film has grossed a disappointing $152 million in China. But it should be noted that the lack of Hollywood films is not the biggest reason behind China’s struggling box office.
China’s Issues Beyond Film
Over the last two years, China has imposed severe restrictions and regulations on the populace as part of the Communist Party-led government’s “Zero COVID” policy. After protests broke out across the nation, these restrictions were lifted, allowing people to return to restaurants, cinemas and more. However, fear of the pandemic held many back. Shortly after, reports emerged of a rapidly spreading COVID outbreak that could see a massive death toll by the end of the winter.
Prior to the pandemic, China’s box office was on track to overtake that of the U.S. In 2019, the market was valued at $9 billion, which made up roughly a quarter of the global box office. For this reason, Hollywood studios were eager to get the biggest films into Chinese cinemas, ensuring profitability. The approach garnered backlash from human rights organizations and industry professionals, as it inadvertently resulted in what many described as the importation of China’s censorship policies.
Avatar: The Way of Water is playing in theaters now.