China's box office grew more than 22% in the first half of 2014, to $2.2 billion, and U.S. titles such as "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" helped imported films grab more than half of all ticket sales in the world's second-biggest movie market.
The top-grossing movie so far this year on the mainland is the domestic production "The Monkey King," which racked up $168.5 million over the Chinese new year winter holiday, but Captain America, Spider-Man and other U.S. superheroes have proved formidable challengers in recent months. Foreign films snared 51.4% of the total box office through June 30, figures compiled by Shanghai-based industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway showed Tuesday.
"A strong Chinese-language film season in the first quarter is now complemented by the tentpole imports of summer," said Rance Pow, president of Artisan Gateway, who also noted that Hollywood studios are having increasing success securing simultaneous releases for their movies in China. In the first half of 2014, eight Hollywood films debuted in China the same day as they opened in the U.S., compared with just three in the first half of 2013.
"Transformers: Age of Extinction," one of those day-and-date releases, looks to be on pace to shatter China's all-time box-office record, held by "Avatar." In 2010, director James Cameron's film took in 1.39 billion renminbi, or about $224 million at today's exchange rates. Since launching Friday, Paramount Pictures' fourth installment in the Transformers series has earned $111.3 million -- about as much as in the U.S. -- and set new records for China's best opening day and biggest three-day opening weekend.
"X-Men" from 20thCentury Fox and Marvel's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" both surpassed $115 million on the mainland, while Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" took in $94 million.
The balance between imported and domestic productions is closely watched and politically sensitive in China, where the government limits the number of foreign films shown in the country each year and their release dates are controlled by the state-run China Film Group.
So far, 34 imported films have been shown in China in 2014, but July and August have typically been largely off-limits to big foreign movies, and the release calendar for the next two months shows no major Hollywood titles on tap.
"Striking a balance on box office remains important. They're trying to allow in the best foreign content but not allow it to dominate," said Chen Shaofeng, deputy director of the Institute for Cultural Industries at Peking University.
"The ideal is not lower than 50-50; if domestic films generate too little revenue, that will seem like a cultural imbalance and could generate backlash from the public and the industry."
But some theater chains are starting to chafe at efforts to manipulate the market. On the eve of the release of "Transformers," a top regulator implored cinemas not to give over "excessive" numbers of screens to the Hollywood juggernaut, but many went ahead and devoted 60% or even 70% of their auditoriums to the film.
In a sign of good news for China's film industry, local movies look to be showing broader range this year. Although the big-budget 3-D "Monkey King" topped the charts, it was followed by the reality kids TV show adaptation "Dad, Where Are We Going?" which was produced for about $5 million and earned $112 million, Artisan said.
Director Zhang Yimou's post-Cultural Revolution drama "Coming Home" set records for an art-house film in China, with $47.2 million. The animated "Boonie Bears: To the Rescue" earned about $39 million, more than "Rio 2."
Strong revenue for U.S. imports is being driven in part by 3-D premiums. All the top American imports have been available in the enhanced format, but only two of the top-10 Chinese earners were released in 3-D. Under China's quota import system, 14 slots are reserved for 3-D films.
The mainland movie market is now No. 2 in the world and is growing rapidly, but it still remains substantially behind the U.S.-Canada market despite China's much larger population. In 2013, the mainland Chinese box office rose about 27% to $3.6 billion, while the U.S.-Canada market was up just 1% to $10.9 billion. China's blistering pace of growth in recent years has prompted American studios to seek a range of partnerships and tie-ups on the mainland to grab a piece of the expanding pie.
But how much further China's box office will grow is the subject of fierce debate.
The country has been adding screens at a rapid clip and now has about 20,000 -- about half the number in the U.S. and Canada.
"At the current rate of cinema screen growth of 18 screens per day, China can reach screen-count parity with the U.S. market within about three years," Pow said. "However, average ticket prices in China -- $5.65 -- still lag the U.S. market -- $8.13 ... . So global box-office parity is still some distance away."
Chen said he believes that this year's China box office will reach about $4.2 billion but that growth will soon start to slow and receipts will peak within a few years at about $5.6 billion. Theater occupancy, he said, remains a serious problem, with on average only about 15% of all available seats being sold.
"The question is how to increase efficiency and attract more moviegoers," he said, noting that chains may have to offer more discounts to lure audiences.
Chen predicted that regulators will attempt to keep import restrictions in place for the "foreseeable future," but said restrictions could be eased if box-office growth starts to slow substantially.
"If domestic films don't keep pace and stay competitive," he said, authorities "may allow more foreign content into the country to allow box office to continue to grow."