China's movie business continued its rapid growth in 2012, and for the first time in four years Hollywood imports accounted for the majority of the business.
Box office receipts in the world's most populous country surged 28% last year to $2.7 billion (16.8 billion yuan), according to data from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television as reported by the government-controlled People's Daily newspaper. Still, the annual pace of growth slowed a bit; receipts in 2011 had risen 35% from 2010.
About 52% of the 2012 ticket sales were for foreign films, compared with 47% in 2011. The difference was fueled by a February agreement between Chinese and U.S. officials to increase from 20 to 34 the number of foreign movies allowed into China under a revenue-sharing program.
Chinese moviegoers have flocked to such special effects-laden event movies as "Titanic 3-D," which grossed $150 million, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" with $102 million and "Life of Pi" with $90 million.
Several global hits released in late 2012 in most countries, most notably "Skyfall" and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" have yet to hit the big screen in China.
Imported movies, mostly from the U.S., accounted for 68% of box office receipts in the first half of the year, and in the second half of the year the state-owned China Film Group began opening some blockbuster imports on the same date in an effort to limit their box office returns. For example, the animated movies "Ice Age: Continental Drift" and "The Lorax" debuted on the same date in July, as did "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" in August.
That strategy, along with several "blackout" periods during which no imported movies were allowed to play in theaters, appears to have worked, as the lopsided box office receipts balance tilted back toward Chinese productions in the second half of the year.
Also helping has been the blockbuster success of the local comedy "Lost in Thailand," which opened Dec. 12. The low-budget buddy movie about two rival Chinese businessmen on a road trip in Thailand grossed $160.5 million through Tuesday, according to People's Daily.
That makes it the biggest release of 2012 and the highest-grossing Chinese production of all time in the country.
The all-time box office record in China is still held by "Avatar," which grossed about $225 million, in 2010.