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China is predicted to have more than 80,000 screens by 2021.
China is predicted to have more than 80,000 screens by 2021.
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Why Is the Beijing International Film Festival Such a Big Deal?

Picture of Fran Lu
Updated: 20 April 2018
For millions of cinephiles across China, April means excitement and nerves for the Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF). The annual film festival entered its eighth year in 2018 and, judging by ticket sales, has become more popular than ever.

As always, the opening day for ticket sales is the peak of the festival. By 12 p.m., 1st of April, thousands of Beijingers made sure that they were connected to the fastest internet service they could find – even one second of hesitation can mean a world’s difference. This year, the demand for tickets was so high that one of the organizers of the China Film Archive called the festival “the Beijing International Film Ticket Transfer Festival.”

The set ticket for Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy sold out in a record-breaking seven seconds while Ingmar Bergman’s nine films took just 10 seconds. The figures for single-screening ticket sales was similarly cutthroat. All five screenings of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) sold out in just 10 seconds and tickets for James Cameron’s all-time classic Titanic (1997) were gone in just 12 seconds. Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983) was so popular that the organizer had to add two more screenings.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel, the BJIFF 2018 most popular movie. | https://www.flickr.com/photos/121483302@N02/14372925841

Compared with the Chinese audiences’ burst of enthusiasm for the film screenings, or the Panorama Section of the BJIFF, is the obvious lack of interest in other sections, including the Tiantan Award deemed more important by the organizers themselves.

In some ways, these lightning-quick ticket sales are indicative of the country’s insatiable demand for film. The total domestic gross of Chinese movie theaters was 55.9 billion yuan ($8.9 billion) in 2017, a 13% increase from the year before that. In 2016, China’s total number of cinema screens even exceeded the U.S. By 2021, it is predicted that the country will have more than 80,000 screens.

And yet, Chinese cinephiles often find themselves short of choices for the movies they can watch in cinemas. This is because theaters are currently asked to screen domestic movies for the time period of no less than two-thirds of all the screening hours, thanks to China’s Film Industry Promotion Law dedicated to boost the domestic movie industry. And while Chinese theaters screened over 400 movies last year, only 64 of them are foreign films, as it is stipulated that no more than 64 films can be imported from abroad each year (34 in the form of revenue-sharing releases and 30 in the form of buy-out release; more on the difference between revenue-sharing releases and buy-out releases here.)

Some highly rated domestic movies, like the documentary Twenty Two (8.8/10), Angels Wear White (8.3/10), performed poorly in the box office (the former being 170 million yuan and the latter 22.1 million yuan), thanks to the fact that these movies had far fewer time slots than the blockbusters. These movies usually have higher art value than the blockbusters, but they lack the money for publicity.

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Angels Wear White | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_Wear_White

What’s more, with the law that demands filmmakers to “serve the people and socialism” and imposes penalties on those who “damage China’s national dignity, honor and interests,” it is not often that the Chinese audience has the chance to watch truly good movies — especially those made by independent filmmakers — in cinemas. In fact, even at BJIFF the recent release of Call Me By Your Name was mysteriously removed from screenings.

The majority of the over 300 movies selected by the BJIFF are old movies, including Chinese classics from 1920s and masterpieces by big-name filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Wong Kar-wai. Many cinephiles have already seen them on their computers, but they still scrambled for the rare and precious opportunity of seeing them on the big screen.