China leads the way as international box office takes top billing

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The Independent Culture

The growing influence of cinema in China has been reflected by a number of factors this week, not least of all being the stunning box office exploits of James Cameron's Avatar.

With a record 33 million yuan (3.3 million euros) from its opening day and that figure rapidly rising, the 3D epic looks a certain bet to establish itself as China's box office champion over the coming months, ending 12 months of sensational growth in the Chinese film industry as three successive Hollywood productions and a homegrown effort broke the hitherto unheard of 400 million yuan (41 million euros) barrier.

Avatar is now headed towards the 460 million yuan (47 million euros) made by Roland Emmerich's 2012, which in turn knocked off Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen which, with 450 million yuan (46 million euros), had last year become the biggest grossing film in Chinese box office history. The Founding Of A Republic also created headlines for making an estimated 415 million yuan (42 million euros) in 2009 - making it by far the most successful Chinese film of all time.

Chinese box office figures are currently growing by 40 percent year-on-year - from US$635.5 million (442 million euros) in 2008 to almost bang on US$900 million (626 million euros) last year - as new cinemas pop up all over the country. The excited chairman of the Hong Kong Film Development Council claimed this week that two new screens are opening in mainland China every day but the mainland film industry itself officially claimed 386 were unveiled in 2009 - an impressive figure by anyone's standards.

And cinema's rapid rise in China is symptomatic of a growing global trend. Where once the North American market ruled the roost, these days filmmakers are placing as much, if not more, importance on how their films rate overseas.

International film industry media have reported this week that total overseas box office returns for Hollywood films in 2009 hit US$10.7 billion (7.4 billion euros) - a new record and seven percent more than the figure recorded in 2008.

Increasingly, Hollywood films are now making more overseas than at home - with only three of the top-10 grossing films of the year in the US failing to make more overseas than they did at home. Other films have benefited after poor returns in the US, such as Michael Jackson's This Is It which more than doubled its North American take when released internationally, according to reports.

Meanwhile back in China, the growing influence of modern cinema on society was again highlighted this week when Avatar was used not just for viewing pleasure but for political purposes.

Residents of China's "nail houses'' - so named because they are the last hold-outs in areas flattened for development - have likened their plight to those of the alien Nai'vi race in the blockbuster, as too have villagers in Hong Kong who face eviction to make way for a high-speed railway line.

"I'm touched by how they protect their homeland,'' 81-year-old Wong Kam-fook told the South China Morning Post, referring to the war the Na'vi wage in the film against the human invaders.