Mainland China's box office revenues jumped more than 36% in 2014 to $4.8 billion, the fastest pace of growth in four years, propelled by Hollywood action, fantasy and sci-fi films like "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and "Interstellar," and homegrown comedies, romances and dramas.
The country added 1,015 cinemas and 5,397 screens last year, bringing the total number of screens to 23,600, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television reported. The U.S., by comparison, has about 39,600 screens.
China in recent years has become the second-largest movie-going market in the world, though revenues are still less than half of those in the U.S. and Canada. China's strong 2014 growth, however, contrasted with a slump in the North American market, which dropped more than 5% to $10.3 billion after a record-setting 2013, when receipts hit $10.9 billion, according to research firm Rentrak.
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 controls their release dates. In 2014, domestic films accounted for 54.5% of box office revenue.
20th Century Fox secured the most wide China releases of any major Hollywood studio, with six, notching hits with titles including "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," according to figures from Chinese film industry research firm Artisan Gateway.
Fox was followed by Warner Bros. and Disney with five each, Paramount Pictures with four, Sony with two and Universal with one. "Interstellar," "X-Men," "Apes" and "Captain America: Winter Soldier" all took in over $115 million.
But it was Paramount's "Transformers" juggernaut that became China's top-grossing film of the year – and all time – raking in $298.5 million, according to Artisan. Part of the film was shot in Hong Kong and mainland China and the cast included Chinese actress Li Bingbing.
Producers went to great lengths to secure Chinese product-placement deals, a move that nearly backfired as one Beijing real estate development, displeased with the amount of screen time it received in the final cut, tried to hold up the movie's release. In the end, however, the controversy only seemed to stoke interest in the title, vaulting Paramount to the top of the U.S. studio earners in China after a lackluster showing in the country in 2013.
While Michael Bay's alien robot extravaganza shattered records over the summer, several highly anticipated films from several well-established Hong Kong and Chinese directors at year's end stumbled, including John Woo's nautical epic "The Crossing: Part 1," which was billed as a sort of Chinese "Titanic" and Jiang Wen's "Gone With the Bullets."
Meanwhile, audiences flocked to nostalgic and comedic films from relatively inexperienced directors. Author Han Han, 32, had a hit with his debut, "The Continent," while actor Deng Chao, 35, got behind the camera for the well-received romantic comedy "The Breakup Guru." Ning Hao's "Breakup Buddies," a road-trip comedy about a singer who hits the road with a pal after his wife cheats and files for divorce, was the top-grossing domestic production of 2014, earning about $180 million.
Robert Cain, a writer-producer and close watcher of the Chinese film market, noted that China now accounts for one of every eight box office dollars spent around the world each day – up from one of every 125 a decade ago.
Such statistics are attracting new heavyweight players into China's film industry, including Internet giants Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent, said Rance Pow, president of Artisan. In 2014, Alibaba, China's e-commerce giant, acquired a majority stake in the Hong Kong-listed firm ChinaVision Media, and renamed it Alibaba Pictures Group. Alibaba also took a minority stake in the online video platform Youku Tudou, which itself set up a film-production entity in 2014.
Alibaba and Tencent both invested in China's Huayi Bros. Studio, while Baidu invested in Huace Film & TV, China's biggest TV-series producer. Baidu also established iQiyi Pictures to produce its own films.
China's surging movie market is also prompting Chinese firms to try to extend their reach into Hollywood. For example, China's Fosun Group, a conglomerate with interests ranging from real estate to insurance, invested heavily in Studio 8, a new venture led by former Warner Bros. chief Jeff Robinov.
Pow said U.S.-Chinese co-productions are on the rise, pointing to films such as the Brad Pitt-starrer "Fury," (a Huayi-Sony film), the kung fu picture "Rise of the Legend" (made by Hong Kong's Edko and Universal) and "Gone With the Bullets," (which had backing from Sony's Columbia Pictures).
Last year, a number of U.S. films, including "Transformers" and "Need for Speed," performed better at the Chinese box office than they did stateside. Though Hollywood studios take home only about 25% of the grosses from major releases in China, the potential for profits is spurring them to increase marketing and publicity efforts in the country. Universal Pictures, for instance, opened an office in Beijing in November.
Pow predicted that in 2015, Hollywood studios would step up efforts to cast Chinese actors and actresses in their English-language productions, pursue more Chinese product-placement deals, and continue to arrange more publicity tours with marquee stars for the China market.