People across China celebrated the traditional Spring Festival holiday this past week, but the country's film industry had extra celebrations in store.
China's box office reached a record-breaking weekly gross of $946 million in the last week, while also breaking records for the highest single-day gross ($200 million), the highest single-day audience numbers (30 million) and the highest single-day gross for a single film ($85 million).
The competition has been led by domestic blockbusters, further upsetting established beliefs about Hollywood's appeal in the world's second-largest box office.
The Chinese fantasy film "Monster Hunt 2" led on Feb. 16, the first day of the holiday, with a record $85 million in box-office receipts, according to Entgroup, a Chinese media and entertainment consulting firm. The film's success contributed to a record-breaking 30 million people going to the movies that day.
On Feb. 18, the adventure comedy "Detective Chinatown Vol. 2" rose to the top in single-day earnings, with $50 million in ticket sales; it led in cumulative receipts two days later as well, with $251 million. Meanwhile, the underdog military action film "Operation Red Sea" was slowly catching up. It overtook "Detective Chinatown Vol. 2" in single-day earnings on Feb 22.
By Thursday afternoon, these three films alone had contributed $821 million to China's total box office. Last year, the entire Spring Festival lineup managed $538 million in the same period, a record at the time.
"It was very much a surprise." said a Chinese film critic who goes by her online name Miss Kouer. She said she found herself in an unusually crowded movie theater during the holiday. "I remember just last year it wasn't packed like this."
Kouer added that she believes China's economic development is "allowing people the leisure time to pay attention to entertainment." Additionally, China has rapidly expanded the number of movie theaters in the country, giving movies a wider audience than in previous years.
China's Spring Festival hasn't always been a bullish market for the film industry. Only a decade ago, January and February were slow months. "Because people weren't in the habit of seeing movies during the Spring Festival, the business was especially difficult in this period," reported the Chinese online entertainment outlet InSight.
But in 2010, James Cameron's sci-fi fantasy "Avatar" shook up the industry by unexpectedly earning $16 million in a week during the Spring Festival. The event became the beginning of a new and profitable trend for filmmakers.
Although Hollywood ignited the market, American blockbusters have been largely absent during China's most important traditional holiday. Disney's "Frozen," in 2014, was the last Hollywood film to screen in China during the holiday period.
This year, the China release for Hollywood blockbuster "Black Panther" has been postponed to March 9, despite opening in most countries in mid-February.
China imposes a regular, but informal, ban on foreign film imports every June through August, apparently to boost domestic competition. The period is widely called China's "domestic film protection period."
When asked if there is such a measure for the Spring Festival, Kouer acknowledged that "some people in the industry have spoken of similar things" but that she believes there are other reasons.
"Foreign filmmakers realize Spring Festival's importance to China, and understand domestic films will be packed into this period, so they know they don't have to join the rush hour," she said.
She said she thinks the development is reflective of a deeper shift: "The quality of Spring Festival movies is gradually improving, and foreign film industries can see it. Perhaps this trend is also a threat to the foreign movies."