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The growth in China’s economy may have slowed to the lowest level in a quarter of century, but mainland cinemas have never been as crowded.

While the size of the Chinese

film market may still lag that of the US – where box office revenues rose 7.4 per cent to US$11 billion in 2015 – it appears only a matter of time before China and its 1.3 billion potential viewers take the top spot.

“China will overtake the US as the world’s biggest movie market as early as 2017,” said Hou Tao, vice-president of Beijing-based entertainment consulting firm EntGroup, which tracks box-office revenues.

READ MORE: Grossing more than 2 billion yuan in nine days, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid set to become mainland China’s highest-grossing film ever

Just last month, China’s monthly box office surpassed North America’s for the first time in history, taking a record 6.87 billion yuan (US$1.05 billion) in ticket sales – about US$250 million more than the North American market, Reuters reported.

Box revenues in China in 2015 amounted to 44 billion yuan, a rise of about 50 per cent from 2014 and more than 100 per cent from 2013.

China’s cinema box-office revenue is seen as a good gauge of the country’s consumer spending potential and has been lauded as a shining star in the context of the slowdown in GDP growth.

The boom in the silver screen industry is underscored by the recent Hong Kong blockbuster The Mermaid, a fantasy romantic comedy directed by Stephen Chow, which reaped an astonishing 3.2 billion yuan on the mainland, becoming China’s highest-grossing film of all time.

Lu Jun still remembers 20 years ago when he first watched a comedy starring Stephen Chow on a VCR in a small town. Chow’s mindless humour and exaggerated performance impressed Lu deeply and he became a fan of the Hong Kong actor.

Twenty years later, like millions of Chinese, Lu, born in 1978, has turned from small-town boy into a successful professional in a bustling metropolis, his personal development mirroring China’s rise from a backwater country to a global economic powerhouse. Lu is now the deputy editor-in-chief for China CITIC Press in Beijing, a leading publishing house in China. But his passion for Chow remains.

Gone are the days it cost him 1.5 yuan to watch Chow on illegally copied cassettes, Lu is now willing to spend hundreds of yuan to appreciate a film directed by Chow.

READ MORE: Eight of Hong Kong superstar Stephen Chow’s funniest scenes

“I went to the cinema four times to watch The Mermaid on the big screen,” said Lu. In Beijing, a cinema ticket for a 3D movie often costs up to 120 yuan.

Lu’s story may partly explain why The Mermaid has been such a hit. The rise of Chinese consumer power added to the subtle but deep links between Hong Kong and the mainland helped the film to shine.

The dazzling speed of the market’s expansion, which has doubled in two years, is expected to continue as cinemas mushroom in mainland cities and towns.

“You can visibly see more cinemas on the street,” said Lin Jiaqiang, a resident of Wenzhou in Zhejiang province. “Within walking distance of my home, there are three cinemas, and there are new comers such as Wanda in other parts of the city.”

Lin was referring to Wanda Cinemas, a company owned by tycoon Wang Jianlin. Created in 2005 from scratch, by the end of 2015 the firm was managing a chain of 292 cinemas with 2,557 screens, according to the company’s website.

Avatar, the epic science fiction film directed by James Cameron, took US$2.75 billion globally, including 1.34 billion yuan in China in early 2010 – a record that once seemed unchallengeable. By 2015, it was at the bottom of the top 10 films in the China market.

In 2015 alone, at least four Chinese films achieved higher revenues than Avatar, three of them comedies, including a low-cost comedy with total costs of only 60 million yuan, according to EntGroup.

READ MORE: Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid makes a box office splash in China

“China’s movie market is developing so quickly. Only a few years ago, it would have been a miracle if a single movie could reap 1 billion yuan at the box office, now it seems a minimum requirement for a serious movie,” said Zhu Yi, a former deputy chief editor with Movie View, a Chinese-language weekly. “And The Mermaid is certainly not the end. In fact, there seems no limit in the Chinese market.”

Researchers said Chow, known as Charlie Chaplin for the Chinese language world, proved Hong Kong productions could find a niche in the mainland market’s boom.

“Hong Kong songs, TV dramas and movies had strong influence over Chinese pop culture” when mainland China’s own entertainment industry barely existed, said Anthony Fung, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University of Hong Kong.