The Surprising Rise of Arthouse Movie Theaters in China

China has the world's most screens but is subject to capricious censorship (ask Tarantino) — can a government-approved Arthouse Cinema Alliance fill the gap?

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3:38 PM HKT, Thu October 24, 2019 3 mins read

China will “eclipse” the US film market within a year, according to the The Hollywoood Reporter, and it is already is home to the most screens in the world. (more than 60,000). But with an unstable market subject to nationwide deleveraging policies, and international offerings such as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (and sometimes domestic fare too) increasingly prone to last-minute cancellations, what can hardcore movie lovers expect to see filling all these theaters?

One option that some are pursuing is to transform standard theaters into part-time arthouse cinemas, where tickets to rarely-screened, high-quality films are sold to a smaller audience with more diverse tastes.

The Rise of Arthouse Theaters

Last year, we reported that the Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinema (NAAC), an organization that specifically focuses on promoting and screening arthouse films, had entered into a deep collaboration with online ticketing platform Tao Piao Piao. The NAAC was initiated in 2016 by a National Radio and Television Administration-affiliated organ, the China Film Archive, which in turn is part of the China Film Art Research Center, an organization with support from industry heavyweights Huaxia Film Distribution, Wanda Cinemas, Bill Kong’s EDKO Films, and Jia Zhangke’s FABULA Entertainment.


Drawing from a massive film library, the China Film Archive opened its own Beijing theaters, Xiao Xi Tian Cinema (in 1995) and Bai Zi Wan Cinema (in 2014). Both regularly screen rarely-seen foreign arthouse movies, and both have become famous among local movie lovers. Also in the capital, Broadway Cinematheque MOMA, opened by film producer Bill Kong in 2009, is often called “Beijing’s first arthouse cinema.” These efforts, together with the gravitas brought by sixth-generation director Jia Zhangke‘s international recognition, mean the alliance seems promising.

The NAAC itself isn’t committed to building theaters, but it has signed agreements with existing cinema halls. According to a source close to the CFA, the latest number of theaters that have signed with NAAC is 3,020, across 333 cities, with a total of 3,617 screens. In accordance with the agreement, these theaters are expected to screen at least three arthouse films per day, and to save 10 primetime slots per week for arthouse films appointed by the NAAC.

To date, the NAAC has presented a diverse slate of films, from Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden’s Venice Horizons Award-winning Jinpa, to Sylvia Chang’s Love Education; from Wong Kar-Wai’s re-released Days of Being Wild, to Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And its earned some box office success in doing so, especially with this year’s (censored) screenings of Bohemian Rhapsody.

On top of recently-released films, the NAAC also organizes themed film exhibitions, screening archived feature films and documentaries produced from 1922 to 2018 including Shanghai Treasures, The Tibet Code, Life of Art, Sculpting in Time, and Wu Tianming and His Chinese Films, a documentary about the late fourth-generation director.

One question may have already stuck out by now: how are films being defined as “arthouse”?

What Counts as “Arthouse” Cinema in China?

Although an “Art Standard Evaluation Committee” does exist within the NAAC, a detailed standard for which “arthouse films” are qualified to screen across their partner theaters is hard to find. After all, there is no clear line between “commercial” and “arthouse” — but there is a clear requirement that all films screened through the NAAC must receive the film screening permit issued by the National Radio and Television Administration, colloquially called the “Long Biao” (“dragon mark”). In general, that means that there are no so-called “underground” or “independent” films screened in the NAAC-signed theaters — they’re all subject to the same industry and governmental approval standards as mainstream films.

The “dragon mark” that shows before every film officially screened in public in China

Nevertheless, a taste for the less commercial seems to be growing among Chinese viewers. In parallel to the NAAC is a smaller Shanghai Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas, which was founded in 2013 and consists of 10 cinemas operated by four different brands. That same year, Rearwindow Film, an organization promoting arthouse films developed from a film-related message board in operation since in the late ’90s, was formed in Nanjing, and is still actively organizing small-scale screenings and promotions. Private, upscale theaters such as CINKER Pictures have also emerged over the past few years, albeit with mixed success, allowing film buffs in Beijing and Shanghai to find a much wider variety of movies in their cities.

Cinker Pictures theater arthouse cinema in China

A Cinker Pictures theater

Chinese authorities have vowed to “support the NAAC and improve the variety of film supply,” and it’s definitely a good thing to see an increasing number of theaters — not only in first- or second-tier cities, but also third- and even forth-tier cities — screening not-so-commercial films, with or without a partnership with the NAAC. How this increased access to”arthouse” cinema will change public tastes and impact upon the appetite for different kinds of films within the soon-to-be largest film market in the world, however, remains to be seen.

Cover image: A still from Jinpa

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