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China overtakes US in cinema screens but seats remain empty

China has overtaken the US in terms of the number of its cinema screens, becoming the world's biggest movie market by that measure.

By: AP | Zhuolu Town | Updated: January 13, 2017 10:36:44 am
chinesetheater-759 China had fewer than 20,000 cinema screens in 2013, but it has now surpassed the US, which had 40,759 indoor. (File)

The brightly-decorated 3-D cinema in this town outside Beijing is showing the latest Chinese and Hollywood films, to row after row of empty red seats. So few people come to watch films here that the theater manager rents out the halls to travelling sales companies or music teachers. China has overtaken the US in terms of the number of its cinema screens, becoming the world’s biggest movie market by that measure. But away from the bigger cities you wouldn’t know it.

In this theater in a county seat near Beijing, the ticket-seller sitting behind the counter with nothing to do and a ticket-collector lying down watching films on his phone are signs something’s amiss with China’s non-stop building of cinemas.

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Industry analysts foresee only more and more screens. But Zhuolu’s residents are typical of Chinese who are not in the habit of movie-going, preferring to watch films online for free.

“We don’t have many customers only a couple on weekdays and a few dozen during the weekends,” said Wang Xudong, the manager of Zhuolu County Digital Cinema, which has three screens and 400 seats for a county of 350,000 people.

“Sometimes we rent the halls out for meetings to earn some money and then we can only break even,” said Wang, who also provides drum kits for cinema hall lessons for amateur musicians. Companies sometimes rent the halls for promotions of products such as health supplements and water dispensers.

China had fewer than 20,000 cinema screens in 2013, but it has now surpassed the US, which had 40,759 indoor and drive-in screens as of July, according to the Washington, DC-based National Association of Theatre Owners. As of December 20, China had 40,917 screens, according to the national film bureau.

As the most populous country, at 1.4 billion, China’s cinema market still has plenty of room to grow as theater chains expand into smaller cities and rural areas.

Box office takings are still much smaller in China, at more than USD 6.5 billion in 2015, compared to USD 11 billion in North America, including cinema advertising revenue.

There are just 23 screens per million Chinese, compared to 125 per million in the US, according to IHS Markit, a London-based market researcher.

Analyst David Hancock estimates China’s screen density ratio will grow to about 57 screens per million over the next five to 10 years.

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