The Astonishing Rise of China's Fim Business Continues

In an April 6th, 2013 post to his invaluable ChinaFilmBiz blog, Robert Cain marshalls some truly breathtaking numbers about the growing number of modern movie theaters grossing record numbers in China.

Looking at these numbers, they add up to one inescapable point: The future of the theatrical film business will reside in China.

In Robert Cain's words:

"Under conservative assumptions, we’ll see China’s gross box office surpassing that of North America by 2018, and going on to double North America by the middle of the next decade. No other territory will come close even to North America, except possibly India. Hollywood’s century of hegemony over the global movie business will clearly soon come to an end."

In other words, if you're dreaming of a job in theatrical distribution, and you don't already know it, it may be time to learn Chinese.

Even some of my savviest movie business friends in the US and Europe still don't get it.

This week one of them tweeted me that "theatrical is dead."

I think he's wrong - or maybe just near-sighted.

The US and Europe are mature markets, where the theatrical audience for films may have peaked.

But what about China and India?

Western movie know-it-alls (myself included) need to appreciate just how real the changes in China and India are.

The impact of a rising middle class - with fewer entertainment options - in cultures that are movie-mad - cannot be ignored.

And it won't be.

It's just too tough to argue with the numbers that Robert Cain cites.

There is a HUGE theatrical business evolving in Asia - with sparkling new theaters and the beginning of a new tide of local films that draw on elements from the East and West in wildly unpredictable (but entertaining) ways.

It's now simply beyond question that Asia will soon dominate the global box office - and (unlike in the West, where the internet is seen by many in the film business as a force that threatens Old World revenue models) the coming explosion in internet connectivity in China and India is likely to only pour gas on a fire that's already pretty intense.

This last point (the positive impact of the internet on Asian cinemas) is admittedly a bit more speculative and to my knowledge even Robert Cain has not been opining (for the time being only perhaps) about the even greater changes that smartphones and tablets will bring to the way movies are marketed and shared in Asia.

But China Mobile is currently rolling out 4G to its 700,000,000 customers.

Read that number again. In a few years, China's state-owned telephone company will connect hundreds of millions of people in China with smartphones: Hundreds of millions of potential movie customers who aren't currently connected to social media through a mobile device, but who will soon have the greatest invention for recommending movies ever invented in their pockets. And the same phenomenon is about to hit India too - although probably not as dramatically.

What's going to happen to theatrical movies when perhaps a billion smartphones and tablets are suddenly connected all over Asia?

If you're worried about "piracy" you're wrong again.  (Come to think of it, you're probably also one of those people who loudly declaim that you'd never watch a movie on a mobile device, so what are you worried about anyway?)  You can't "pirate" a great in-person experience - and that's what the next generation of theatrical films must offer.  Mobile devices aren't for viewing the films that will succeed in theaters in the 21st Century - mobile devices are for learning about those films.  This distinction (just like the difference between a TV Movie and a Movie Theater Movie) will become clearer to those of you who still don't get it as the next few years unfold.

If you haven't thrown down your connected device (your Commodore 64?) in disgust at my lack of concern about "piracy," thanks.  Here's what I see happening in Asia in the next few years: Hundreds of millions of newly connected fans will begin to see trailers and recommendations on their mobile devices. In China this will happen at the exact moment that world-class digital movie theaters are opening in their towns - towns where there hasn't been much else to do and a consumer culture is rapidly taking hold (a new class of people who can finally aspire to certain types of entertainment, fans who already soak up games and television, but fans who haven't been adequately represented in big budget movies until now).

Is it too hard to imagine that Chinese moviegoers will go to theaters in even greater numbers when friends and marketers use these new devices to recommend new films?  Films that are theatrical experiences with local voices and faces?

Despite the machinations of the MPAA and other luddites (am I the only one paying attention to all the other businesses that have gone through a disruption in their sector and profited? Apple and the music business anyone? the movie business and VCRs?), isn't it clear that (while the sales of physical media will plummet) the internet will actually help to spread the word about the unique new experiences (e.g., 3D or an event film that must be seen in theaters this weekend with friends) to an audience that will have the economic power to yank the global movie business in their direction?

Is theatrical dead?

I don't think so.

Look at the numbers.

Then look to China.


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