China’s box-office dominance was accelerated by the pandemic and it has big implications for Hollywood’s future

godzilla vs kong warner bros
“Godzilla vs. Kong” opened strong in China.

  • China is projected to be the box-office champion of the future in the wake of the pandemic.
  • The Chinese theatrical industry will continue to grow as the US box office slowly recovers.
  • Local movies have put China over the top, but experts say there’s hope for Hollywood releases.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China had for several years been projected to dethrone the US as the world’s largest theatrical market. But the coronavirus pandemic accelerated its ascent, and pushed it over the top, as it surpassed North America last year with $2 billion.

Before the pandemic, the research firm Ampere Analysis had projected China to overtake the US by 2022. Now, it expects China to remain the No. 1 market in the world indefinitely, as the US theatrical market slowly recovers from the pandemic.

The company projects the Chinese box office to earn $6.9 billion this year compared to $4.5 billion in the US. By 2025, it sees China being well ahead of its pre-pandemic numbers with $13.7 billion while the US falls short of $8 billion.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for the Chinese theatrical industry. In early 2020, as the coronavirus began to spread throughout the world, China’s 70,000 theaters shut down for months. But the region has been able to recover faster than the US. And while the recent release of “Godzilla vs. Kong” showed hope for the US box office, no movie is reaching the hundreds of millions of dollars in one weekend that some locally produced Chinese movies have.

Hollywood is hoping that its blockbusters can roar back to life this summer with the help of China, but they will face stiff local competition.

Local productions have accounted for more and more of the box office in China in recent years, and that trend came to a head during the pandemic when few Hollywood movies were being released in the region. The top 10 movies at the Chinese box office in the last year were local films. While that’s a product of the pandemic’s impact, it also presents potential long-term changes for the dynamic between Hollywood and China.

Insider talked with industry experts about China’s dominance during and after the pandemic, the success of locally produced films, and what it all means for Hollywood’s reliance on the Chinese market, which was seen as a reliable box-office stronghold for many Hollywood tentpoles (from Marvel movies to the “Fast and Furious” saga).

China’s theater business will keep growing

“The previously stable US market will reduce in size following the pandemic,” said Richard Cooper, the Ampere Analysis research director. “This is largely due to a forecast downturn in film financing and the fact that some US cinemas will shutter permanently.”

Cooper said China’s theater business, on the other hand, will keep growing.

That growth is exemplified by Imax Corporation, the film technology company that specializes in high-quality cameras and projection systems. Richard Gelfond, the company’s CEO, told Insider that China is its biggest market with 750 Imax theaters in the country (there are 400 in the US). It expects that number to grow to more than 1,000 in the next few years.

“As China’s cinema buildings programmes swing back into action post-pandemic, the availability of cinema in the country and the volume of ticket sales will rise as will the Chinese revenues of US films,” Cooper said. “Whilst this doesn’t mean Hollywood’s returns will increase in-line, it will still have a positive impact on revenues generated in China by US films.”

That’s at least some much-needed good news for Hollywood.

There’s still hope for Hollywood blockbusters

As China’s theatrical industry started to rebound from the devastation brought by the pandemic, Hollywood blockbusters were underperforming.

Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” and Disney’s “Mulan” and “Soul” all flopped in the region as locally produced movies thrived.

The outlook was bleak. Then “Godzilla vs. Kong” happened.

Warner Bros. and Legendary’s monster mashup grossed $69 million in China in its debut weekend from March 26 to March 28. It fell just 37% in its second weekend with $43.5 million. The movie has so far earned more than $285 million worldwide, $136.5 million of which is from China.

“When there are global releases that open up in a traditional way you’ll see similar box office in China to what you saw before,” said Gelfond, the Imax CEO.

Experts said “Godzilla vs. Kong’s” performance shows that there is still strong interest in China for Hollywood blockbusters. Gitesh Pandya, the editor of, noted that many of Hollywood’s most anticipated blockbusters that might do serious business in China, like “Fast and Furious 9,” have been postponed to later this year.

“There’s certainly plenty of hope in Hollywood that China will still be a crucial market,” Pandya told Insider. “The right movie is still going to sell.”

Still, though “Godzilla vs. Kong” is performing well in the coveted Chinese market, there has been a shift in consumer behavior in the region that can’t be ignored.

my people, my homeland
“My People, My Homeland”

Local movies are boosting the Chinese box office

The low-budget local drama “Sister” dethroned “Godzilla vs. Kong” at the Chinese box office over the weekend. It cost just $4.6 million to produce and earned nearly $53 million in its debut.

It’s the latest Chinese movie to excel domestically during the pandemic. No Hollywood movie entered the Chinese box office’s top 10 grossing films from April 1, 2020 to March 29, 2021, according to data provided to Insider by the analytics company Comscore.

The top two Chinese movies in that time period, “Hi, Mom” and “Detective Chinatown 3,” have earned $823 million and $691 million there, respectively, since debuting this February.

That doesn’t mean that Chinese films didn’t perform well in China before the pandemic. They absolutely did (in 2019, the Chinese films “Ne Zha” and “The Wandering Earth” were the two highest-grossing movies there). But locally produced movies have accounted for more and more of China’s box office over the last five years.

Local films accounted for nearly 85% of China’s box office in 2020, according to the research firm Ampere Analysis, propelled by a diverse array of releases like the war movie “The Eight Hundred” ($439 million in China) and the anthology film “My People, My Homeland” ($419 million).

Local movies accounted for just under 60% in 2018 and 50% in 2016.

As Pandya pointed out, many major Hollywood releases were benched during the pandemic. But China’s ability to release its own films in that time, and audiences’ interest in them, could set the stage for a more competitive market in the future between Hollywood and Chinese productions.

“There was a strong demand for locally produced Chinese films [out of lockdown],” Pandya said. “But before the pandemic, Chinese films in China were doing gangbusters. As Hollywood players start coming in, you might see more of a mix.”

Here were the top 10 highest-grossing movies at the Chinese box office from April 1, 2020 to March 29, 2021, according to Comscore:

  1. “Hi, Mom” – $823.6 million
  2. “Detective Chinatown 3” – $691.2 million
  3. “The Eight Hundred” – $439.3 million
  4. “My People, My Homeland” – $419.1 million
  5. “Jiang Zi Ya” – $232.1 million
  6. “A Little Red Flower” – $217.9 million
  7. “Shock Wave 2” – $200.2 million
  8. “Sacrifice” – $166.6 million
  9. “A Writer’s Odyssey” – $158.3 million
  10. “Warm Hug” – $131.5 million
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‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ was a hit at the box office and on HBO Max, and it shows why the post-pandemic terms between studios and theaters are far from settled

godzilla vs kong warner bros
“Godzilla vs. Kong”

  • Experts say “Godzilla vs. Kong’s” pandemic-best opening shows promise for theaters, but urge caution.
  • The movie was also a hit on HBO Max, but WB plans to abandon day-and-date releases after this year.
  • Still, a studio exec said WB is in talks with exhibitors to shorten the theatrical window.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

After more than a year, the US theatrical industry finally had some good news.

“Godzilla vs. Kong,” the new monster battle royale from Warner Bros. and Legendary’s “MonsterVerse,” earned $48.5 million at the domestic box office in its first five days, and $32.2 million over the three-day Easter weekend – a pandemic-best opening. It’s so far made more than $285 million worldwide (it cost $200 million to produce).

It’s more impressive considering the movie, like all of Warner Bros.’ movies this year, also debuted on WarnerMedia’s streaming service HBO Max on the same day it arrived in theaters.

Does that suggest that moviegoers will still see films in cinemas whether they’re streaming or not?

“Many audiences actively seek out the big screen, big sound, and shared experience [of movie theaters],” Jeff Goldstein, the Warner Bros. president of domestic theatrical distribution, told Insider. “With the right properties, theatrical exhibition can significantly ignite a cultural moment and increases the entire value chain.”

But while the numbers signal some hope for movie theaters that have been rocked by pandemic-related closures, experts caution that the industry isn’t out of the woods just yet.

“It’s difficult to determine anything concretely from just one film, especially after the year we’ve had,” said Jeff Bock, the Exhibitor Relations senior media analyst.

He added that theaters “just have to keep providing a safe and compelling environment for audiences, as ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ certainly shows folks are ready to return for the right film.”

“While the film experienced a huge increase in box-office performance relative to ‘Wonder Woman 1984,’ we are still well below how films had performed pre-pandemic and concerns remain that a meaningful portion of moviegoers now prefer streaming at home,” said Joe McCormack, an analyst with the research firm Third Bridge.

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the largest movie-theater trade group, cautioned that while theaters in the US are heading in the right direction, markets in Canada, Europe, and Latin America are still struggling.

“We are a national and a global industry, and we need many of those markets to recover to ensure the biggest box-office potential for global hits,” a NATO spokesperson told Insider in a statement.

While theaters still have a long road to recovery, the movie does suggest that theatrical and streaming distribution strategies can coexist.

godzilla vs kong
“Godzilla vs. Kong”

Theatrical windows may never be the same

“Godzilla vs. Kong” wasn’t just a box-office hit. HBO Max said that the movie had the largest audience in its first four days of any title since the service launched last May.

In response to “Godzilla vs. Kong’s” performance, some analysts praised WarnerMedia’s day-and-date release strategy, which received backlash from Hollywood after it was announced in December.

Lightshed Partners’ Rich Greenfield noted on Twitter that Max was the No. 1 app in the Apple app store on Sunday and said “the future is day and date releases.” B. Riley Securities analyst Eric Wold upgraded his stance on shares of AMC Theatres, the world’s largest theater chain, from “neutral” to “buy.”

Warner Bros.’ strategy reflects a big shift in film distribution amid the pandemic.

But NATO, the theater trade group, isn’t convinced it will have lasting consequences.

“Exhibitors are, of course, concerned about meaningful changes to release models, including the length of the exclusive theatrical window,” the NATO spokesperson said. “It is important to understand that pandemic release models, driven in part by the studios’ need for revenue right now, may bear little resemblance to what comes after, when the theatrical market can operate at full capacity. A large piece of the studio movie output simply does not make sense – or profit – without a robust theatrical performance.”

Still, there are already signs that the traditional theatrical window, typically 75 to 90 days before the pandemic, could be a thing of the past. Warner Bros. isn’t the only movie studio to embrace streaming during the pandemic and it could have lasting ramifications for movie theaters.

Major studios like Warner Bros., Universal, and Paramount have struck deals with exhibitors to dramatically shorten the window beyond 2021. That doesn’t mean day-and-date releases like what Warner Bros. is doing now, but it does mean movies could wind up on streaming or digital-rental platforms earlier than ever before.

Warner Bros., for instance, struck a deal with Cineworld (which owns Regal Cinemas) to shrink the window to 45 days beginning in 2022. Goldstein, the studio’s head of domestic theatrical distribution, told Insider that Warner Bros. is in talks with other exhibitors for similar deals.

He suggested that the day-and-date model is for 2021 only, which Warner Bros. had previously stressed.

“Our day-and-date strategy was right for us given the hobbled marketplace at this point in time,” Goldstein said. “Our plan for 2022 makes sense for that period of time.”

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LA movie theaters could reopen as soon as this weekend, according to California Gov. Gavin Newsom

tcl chinese theater amc los angeles la movie hollywood boulevard
This Tuesday, March 31, 2015 photo shows the interior of the TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Chinese Theatre, one of the largest Imax theaters in the world, is one of more than a dozen locations that Imax expects to outfit with laser projection this year.

  • Los Angeles, America’s largest movie market, could re-open movie theaters as soon as this weekend.
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom said theaters could re-open if certain COVID-related goals are met.
  • If allowed to re-open, LA theaters will still have to limit capacity to just 25%.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Los Angeles isn’t just where movies are made, it’s also the largest movie-going market in America.

And during the last 12 months, LA movie theaters have been closed due to the ongoing pandemic. That could finally end this weekend, according to California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

If Los Angeles County meets two critical metrics for new cases and vaccinations, Los Angeles movie theaters will be able to re-open with 25% capacity starting this Saturday.

In order to meet the criteria, LA County would need to have fewer than 1,000 new cases per day, CNBC reported. Additionally, statewide, 2 million vaccine doses must be administered to underserved populations.

During an address on Wednesday, Newsom said both metrics were on track to be met before the weekend.

Vehicles are parked at the first drive-in movie theatre for people to enjoy movies while keeping social distancing amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bangkok, Thailand, July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
The first drive-in movie theatre amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Bangkok, Thailand.

Movie theaters in other parts of the US have already begun reopening as vaccines protecting against COVID have begun to roll out. New York City, for instance, reopened theaters last week at 25% capacity.

And some states, including Texas and Connecticut, have cleared theaters and other businesses for even larger reopenings without low capacity requirements.

Got a tip? Contact Insider senior correspondent Ben Gilbert via email (, or Twitter DM (@realbengilbert). We can keep sources anonymous. Use a non-work device to reach out. PR pitches by email only, please.

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The movie-theater chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has filed for bankruptcy

Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers Kathy Tran final

The specialty theater chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the movie theater industry in the US.

The filing is part of a sale to the private equity firm Altamont Capital Partners, which had previously invested in the company, and affiliates of the investment management firm Fortress Investment Group.

The Texas-based company has more than 40 corporate-owned and franchise locations throughout the US, but will close some struggling locations as it reevaluates lease agreements. 

The company said that the filing and sale will give it the capital it needs to come out of the pandemic intact. The open locations will continue operations.

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AMC extends 2-day rally to 36% with NYC movie theaters set for partial reopening in March

AMC kiosks

Shares of AMC Entertainment extend their two-day rally to 36% after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday that New York City movie theaters are set for partial reopening on March 5.

Cuomo said theaters are only allowed to operate at 25% capacity, or up to 50 people, per show. The governor also noted that assigned seating, social distancing, and other health precautions would be in place.

“We are excited to announce that AMC, the largest movie theatre exhibitor in New York City, will reopen all 13 of our theatres in New York City beginning March 5,” said Adam Aron, CEO of AMC, in a statement

Aron noted that since reopening their theaters in August 2020, they have welcomed nearly 10 million moviegoers “without a single reported case of COVID-19 transmission.” 

Theaters in New York City have been shut for nearly a year in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. Movie theaters in the state, meanwhile, have been open for some time at limited capacity, as well as in other parts of the country. 

The recent move to welcome back moviegoers comes amidst the governor’s effort in repoening certain parts of the state to revive the economy from opening the doors of Barclays Center to Madison Square Garden.

Not everyone, though, is pleased. An employee at Madison Square told Insider that she was shocked by the swiftness of the governor’s announcement and argued that she would need a couple more weeks for her vaccine to fully take effect.

AMC, the world’s biggest movie-theater company, has seen its stock price skyrocket and plummet in the past weeks as Reddit traders targeted the company, along with GameStop, by buying large volumes in an attempt to squeeze hedge funds shorting these. 

Apart from that, investors have reallocated their portfolio into so-called reopening sectors from travel to leisure and entertainment since signs of success from various COVID-19 vaccines began to appear.

Screen Shot 2021 02 23 at 2.28.33 PM
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New York City movie theaters will reopen on March 5 at limited capacity, Cuomo says

amc movie theater nyc covid19
A view outside AMC 34th Street 14 movie theater during the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in New York City.

  • New York City movie theaters will be able to reopen on March 5 at 25% capacity, Gov. Cuomo said Monday.
  • Cuomo also said assigned seating, social distancing, and other health precautions would be in place.
  • New York City movie theaters have been closed for nearly a year.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

After nearly a year of being shut down, New York City movie theaters are coming back.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that New York City movie theaters would be able to reopen on March 5 at 25% capacity, or up to 50 people per showing. Cuomo also said that assigned seating, social distancing, and other health precautions would be in place.

AMC Theatres’ stock was up about 12% on Monday after Cuomo’s announcement. Cinemark was up over 8%.

New York City is one of the last major theatrical hubs to reopen in the US. Los Angeles, another major market, is still closed. The city’s theaters have been closed since mid-March last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, but movie theaters throughout the rest of New York state have already been open at limited capacity.

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), the largest movie-theater trade group, released a statement on Monday saying: “New York City is a major market for moviegoing in the U.S.; re-opening there gives confidence to film distributors in setting and holding their theatrical release dates, and is an important step in the recovery of the entire industry.”

It added: “We look forward to expanding the capacity from 25% to 50% in the very near future so that theatres can operate profitably.”

The pandemic has upended the theatrical industry over the last year. The 2020 North American box office declined 80.3% from 2019 and the global box office fell 71.3%, according to Comscore.

Theaters in the US closed in March for five months before reopening again in August ahead of the September release of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” But major chains like Regal and Cineworld soon said they would shut down all locations in the US and UK again as coronavirus cases continued to soar.

In response, movie studios have sought alternatives to movie theaters, accelerating a shift to streaming. Disney and WarnerMedia have reorganized around their streaming businesses, resulting in layoffs. WarnerMedia-owned Warner Bros. is even releasing all of its new movies this year to HBO Max and theaters simultaneously

Universal, on the other hand, has struck deals with major theater chains like AMC Theatres (the world’s largest) to shorten the theatrical window from the typical 75 days to in most cases just 17, at which point the studio can debut movies on digital-rental platforms.

Experts says Universal’s strategy could be the new normal, even after the pandemic. AMC even touted the plan as a reason to stay open in October as other chains closed.

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