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China’s Handful of Reopened Cinemas Get the Cold Shoulder From Wary Audiences

Variety — Rebecca Davis

China has re-opened a portion of its cinemas as it emerges from its coronavirus shutdown. But they’re far from back to business as usual.

After nearly 60 days of closures, more than 500 cinemas — around 5% of China’s total — re-opened last weekend. Yet without exciting product yet to push, they remain comically empty.

In their first weekend, theaters welcomed on average less than one person per screening and collectively earned a total of just $10,000 (RMB72,000) — not even as much as a single, average cinema might typically earn in a day, or even enough to afford a single square meter of Beijing real estate.

China’s main distributor China Film Corp. has issued several films that cinemas can play via a “public service model,” in which they retain 100% of the earnings without leaving a cut for other rights holders. But with box office figures this low, even this sort of indirect bailout won’t be enough to keep the lights on for most cinemas.

“Looking at things now, all the box office from Q1 was basically lost, and cinemas will certainly not be busy in April. Even if there’s a sudden revival of consumption, box office losses this year may exceed $2.1 billion (RMB15 billion), so the annual box office performance this year doesn’t look good,” industry analyst Shi Yongdong told the China Securities Daily.

About a quarter of the re-opened cinemas are located in sparsely-populated and largely rural Xinjiang. They disproportionately accounted for more than 80% of the nation-wide box office, a feat only possible because the burden of disease in the region has been lighter.

The first cinema to re-open in China, the Xinjiang Golden Palm Cinema, has received no more than 100 people per day, its manager told the People’s Daily newspaper, yielding a daily box office of around $140-280. It has shifted to half days, running films from around 2pm to 7pm.

Some analyses of post-epidemic revival were initially more optimistic, including a survey conducted by ticketing and entertainment service platform Maoyan in late February, for which the firm gathered data from 581 people who bought movie tickets last year on either its own or the Meituan app.

Respondents listed going to the cinema and eating out with friends as their top two choices of entertainment they looked forward to after the epidemic by a wide margin, above shopping, travel or KTV, among other options. More than half of respondents said they’d actually be more willing to go to the cinema after release from quarantine than they would have been before the epidemic, while just 13% said they would be less willing or unwilling to go.

So far, however, this appears to be far from the case on the ground. In fact, the news that cinemas were re-opening has been met with a mixture of criticism, ridicule and disbelief online.

“There are still people who want to go to the movies??” wrote one top comment accompanied by a row of crying facepalm emojis. Another liked more than 10,000 times said, “If a single superspreader goes to the cinema, then spending two months at home and stealing all those masks was all for nothing.”

Others echoed the sentiment of a Weibo user who said: “Although I really want to watch films, at the moment I don’t dare go.”

While people have rushed to visit newly reopened parks and enthusiastically welcomed the news of revived restaurants, shopping malls, and tourist attractions, cinemas are getting a particular cold shoulder.

One Chinese article explained: “Watching movies is just not that essential a need. After the epidemic, audiences still need a period of psychological adaptation. It will take a long time for theaters to fully recover to their state before the epidemic.”

It cited a cinema manager as expressing concerns that there will be a situation where “small films are unable to pull in audiences, but big films are unwilling to release and thus drive business.”

While China Film Corp. has been busy amassing a grab bag of older popular titles for cinemas to re-release — including everything from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to Chinese sci-fi hit “The Wandering Earth” — new blockbusters have so far refrained from scheduling any debuts.

This includes all of the major Chinese films pulled from screening during the Chinese new year holiday. A new theatrical release date from one of them would be the surest indication yet of when insiders expect the exhibition sector to get properly back on track.

At a time of uncertainty and economic hardship, calls are growing for authorities to loosen their protectionist grip on content and import more titles capable of keeping turnstiles spinning.

“Even if a re-release is as strong as ‘Wolf Warrior 2,’ it’s not realistic to expect audiences to pay for it. Stagnation may be the next trend,” read a Chinese commentary published in new media outlet TMT Post.

“If you want to prevent downturn during this period, you’ll have to rely on the attractiveness of big blockbusters. Upper levels of [governmental] management must make more efforts and be willing to ‘open the floodgates’ and let them out.”

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