Film Industry in China: A Deep Dive into Its Successes and Challenges

Film industry in china

Although China is really a globally known powerhouse when it comes to the film market, China was in fact the world’s largest film market in 2020 and 2021. Did you know nearly 800 films glitter onto screens in this country annually? Now that’s impressive! Let me take you on an immersive trip down memory lane.

We’ll roll back the curtains to reveal the historical milestonesdynamic evolution, hurdles overcome and future trends shaping Chinese cinema. Hold your popcorn tight; we’re about to uncover China’s thrilling rise in international film production together!

Key Takeaways

  • China’s film industry makes nearly 800 films every year.
  • The Chinese domestic film industry generated 30 billion yuan ($4.64 billion) in 2022.
  • People worldwide watch animations called “donghua” produced by China.
  • Money has been big for the film business since Western movies arrived in China.
  • Today, Chinese cinema deals with issues like lack of diversity and fight against imported flicks.

History of the Film Industry in China

I’m setting my time machine to take us back into the fascinating and intricate history of China’s film industry. Starting from its humble beginnings, we’ll experience its early development and encounter significant periods such as the leftist movement, Japanese occupation, and a “golden age”.

Beginnings and early development

In 1896, motion pictures first made their way to China. Things didn’t kick off right away though. It wasn’t until the 1930s when the industry really fired up. “Conquering Jun Mountain” became the first ever Chinese-made film in 1905, marking an important step for us.

Around the same time, a new movement took hold in the 1930s: leftist filmmaking. This trend lived on until about 1949 and had a huge impact on what was happening in cinemas across China back then.

Leftist movement and Japanese occupation

In the 1930s, China’s film industry felt a strong shift. This was all due to the leftist movement that was building up steam at the time. The leftists had powerful ideas and they were not afraid to voice them out loud even with dangers lurking.

Their influence reached far; it touched all big film companies and Chinese studios in Shanghai.

A significant event back then was Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. I should say this really set things off for filmmakers who sided with leftists. They did not like what Japan did one bit and showed their anti-Japanese sentiment through their work.

The second golden age and early Communist era

In 1947, the second golden age of film kicked off in China. A tough time during the Chinese civil war gave birth to this era. This period was unique for having three film industries emerge within China at once.

Meanwhile, a decade before that, amid the cheer and colors of its first golden age, we saw leftist cinema shapes and forms reach great heights.

But then World War II came along with Sino-Japanese war on the side—it stopped all that gold from shining bright.

Films of the Cultural Revolution

From 1966 to 1972, no films were shot in China. This time is known as the Cultural Revolution. It put tight limits on film-making. Films from this time had a big effect on many things like politics and culture.

They also changed the way films look and feel. The industry had a hard time during this period too. But these troubles led to changes that shaped movies we see today from China.

China's greatest propaganda film: Zhou Enlai's historical musical 'The East  is Red' – The China Project
“The East is Red” movie from 1965

Rise of the fifth and sixth generations

The fifth generation came after 1990. It was made up of film students who finished their studies in 1982. They were the first group to make domestic films since the Cultural Revolution. But they were seen as outsiders in the Chinese movie world.

Then, there was a sixth generation. Like those before them, these Chinese filmmakers stepped away from what most might call “normal”. They made movies that did not easily fit into what was known in China at that time. They also didn’t resemble any of the foreign movies known at that time.

Close-Up on "Farewell My Concubine": A Spectacular Ode to Life, Love, and  Art on Notebook | MUBI
“Farewell my Concubine” from 1993

One of the greatest movies of that time is Farewell My Concubine from 1993. The movie, starring Leslie Cheung, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li was initially banned by the Chinese Communist Party, as it was showing the Cultural Revolution in a negative light. Now it’s perceived as one of the greatest Chinese movies of all time, and also the first one that won Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.

Evolution of Chinese Cinema

Having traced its humble beginnings, Chinese cinema has remarkably evolved over the years. From simple storylines and traditional performances, it took a new turn into the animation phase which attracted an enormous global audience.

Furthering this transformation was the rise of modern-day documentaries that breathed life into real-world issues through film. The impressive growth didn’t stop there – ‘New Chinese Cinema’ emerged showcasing unique models that garnered commercial success both locally and internationally.

Today, it stands as a powerful medium resonating with millions worldwide who appreciate their distinctive narratives filled with rich cultural insights.

Animation industry

I am seeing big changes in the animation world here in China. We are growing fast since the end of the Mao Era in the late ’70s. Our type of animation, known as “donghua”, includes all sorts of styles and places. One of the great examples of donghua animation is Havoc in Heaven movie:

Chinese animation 100 - Global Times
“Havoc in Heaven” – a Chinese animated movie from 1961

Today there is around 2,400 schools teaching kids about donghua. Despite issues making money at home, this push helps China get on screens across the globe.

New documentary movement

The New Documentary Movement bloomed in China around the late 80s. Smart folks at TV stations began using borrowed tools to make these films. Unlike earlier movies, of grand themes and big ideas, these were personal tales about everyday people.

This switch was a major step for Chinese cinema. It brought real changes to life in mainland China.

New models and the new Chinese cinema

New models are changing Chinese cinema. In the late 1970s, China started letting in more movies from other countries. This meant big changes for Chinese films too. China began to use some ideas and styles seen in these foreign films.

Making money has become a big part of making movies in China since that time. State-owned film companies like China Film Co and Huaxia Film Distribution Co play a large role now, stepping up their efforts in 2020 especially.

Companies like these make about 800 new movies every year! That makes China one of the largest producers of films worldwide.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) - HBO Max | Flixable
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” one of the most famous Chinese movies from 2000

Challenges Faced by the Chinese Film Industry

Despite its growth, the Chinese film industry faces multiple challenges which include limited diversity within genres and stories, stiff competition from imported movies, as well as revenue generation and structural issues within the industry.

Lack of diversity

In China, the film industry faces a tough issue. They lack diversity. Disney, for example, faced a problem with a Black lead in their movie in China. People did not accept it. This makes it hard for people from different groups to show on-screen.

Competition with imported movies

In the sprawling cinematic landscape of China, competition between domestic films and imported movies has intensified in recent years. While the Chinese film industry has seen a surge in high-quality productions that resonate deeply with local audiences, imported movies, especially Hollywood blockbusters, continue to captivate a significant portion of the market.

China’s quota system, which limits the number of foreign films released annually, seeks to balance this competition, but the allure of big-budget, star-studded international movies remains a compelling challenge for homegrown cinema. The interplay between the domestic and international film worlds is shaping the evolution of China’s film industry, pushing it towards innovation and global appeal.

Box office revenue and screens

The box office revenue and number of screens in China have seen significant growth and changes over the years.

Film industry in china

China’s film industry’s biggest problem for now is the fact, that due to COVID-19, when the cinema theatres were closed, many of the cinema enthusiasts switched to video-streaming platforms to watch commercial films. Now it’s very hard to get those customers back.

What is also notable is the fact that the market share of Hollywood films has seen a downward trend, from 48.2% in 2012 to 13.6% in 2022. This is a significant drop, despite the increase in box office revenue. Also, the revenue of imported Hollywood movies has remained 70% lower compared to pre-pandemic levels.

This might be as a result of the challenges that the Chinese film industry faces, such as censorship and cultural differences. However, the potential for growth in the Chinese film industry is undeniable, considering its vast market and growing interest in co-production and international collaboration.

Film companies and industry structure

Chinese film companies and the overall industry structure are undergoing significant changes. These changes are having a direct impact on the success and performance of films in the Chinese market.

Company/Industry StructureChangesImpacts
State-owned Film CompaniesChina Film Co and Huaxia Film Distribution Co, two of the major state-owned film companies in China, increased their involvement in top films in 2020.This increased involvement has resulted in more state influence and control over major films, which can affect the content and messages portrayed in these movies.
Import SectorThe import business in China’s film sector has seen numerous companies go out of business in the last three years due to heavy challenges.This decline has made it increasingly difficult for foreign films to penetrate the Chinese market, leading to less diversity in the movies that Chinese audiences are exposed to.
Foreign Films and CensorshipForeign film companies face issues related to censorship in China, including competitive release scheduling and delays in releases.These issues can lead to losses in potential revenue and can discourage foreign companies from distributing their films in China.

Changes in Chinese film companies and industry structure are not just affecting movie content and box office sales, they’re also challenging the diversity and inclusiveness of the industry.

Future of the Film Industry in China

China is changing. It’s opening its doors wider to let in foreign movie companies. This shift has raised the cap on how much money outside firms can pump into China’s film industry. More money means Chinese filmmakers can work with global players and make better movies together.

For example, back in 2014, a special deal was made between China and the UK. The two nations signed an agreement to make films side by side. Big companies owned by China’s government like China Film Co and Huaxia Film Distribution Co have also begun playing bigger roles here at home, putting more effort into top films last year than ever before.

Even heavy-hitters from Hollywood want to get involved! They’re teaming up with Chinese groups to add more movies that combine Eastern and Western flavours to their roster of blockbusters.

In fact, back in 2016 alone there were almost 75 joint productions! These numbers show just how well mixed teams can do when they join hands.

Jiang Ziya - Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle
“Jiang Ziya” from 2020, one of the highest-rated movies in China

Growing interest in Chinese cinema abroad

A lot of people outside China are starting to like Chinese movies. This interest is very important for the future growth of the film industry in China. Yet, selling these movies overseas is tough for filmmakers from China.

Film festivals all over the world help show off their work though. These shows have made a big impact and even Hollywood notices it now! People enjoy different types of films that come out of this country.

But rules in place make it hard for movie companies from other countries to shoot their own films in China.

Efforts to promote diversity and inclusion

The Chinese film industry is working hard to add more diversity and inclusion. The goal is to have all types of people in films, from different walks of life. They want every character on screen to reflect real-world variety.

This move aims not just for fairness but also for creativity, as fresh stories can come from overlooked parts of society. It even helps with money-making because diverse films are a hit overseas.

Take Indian cinema for example – it’s doing really well in China! Also, Hollywood sees the benefits and collaborates with local filmmakers through deals like sharing sales profits or fixed payment movies.

“Barbie” from 2023 received a surprising interest in China, with many women finding themselves in the Barbie main role


China’s film world is exciting and bustling. With its rich history, it has shaped China’s culture and fun. Through ups and downs, Chinese cinema now fills the largest market for films in the world.

This growth brings grand opportunities for sharing stories both inside and outside of China’s borders.

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