Just before the coronavirus outbreak started to become more widespread in the US and Europe, Disney hosted the premieres of its latest offering in the live-action genre, Mulan, both in Los Angeles and London in early March. Only a few days later the studio announced that the release of the film, which stars Chinese actress Liu Yifei, would be delayed as governments around the world told people to stay at home.
Cinemas were slowly starting to reopen in recovering China this week, but people hoping for an early screening of the Disney film will be disappointed as the studio is unlikely to release the movie in China ahead of the US.
Nevertheless, the fact that the government had allowed at least 507 cinemas to resume operations by last Saturday was a sign that the country is on its way back towards normalcy, according to Entertainment Unicorn, an industry blog. The expectation is that many more cinemas will follow in their wake, it added.
The vast majority of those that have reopened are in Xinjiang, where there haven’t been any new coronavirus cases for some time. Others to open their doors again were in Qinghai or Fujian – two provinces which are also deemed lower-risk for the coronavirus.
To make sure that moviegoers are social distancing, the cinemas that have reopened are required to sell tickets that are spaced apart and all customers have their temperatures taken before they take their seats.
Still, a lot of netizens are unsure if the reopenings are a good idea.
“When people go to the cinema they go with their partners or friends, so naturally they want to sit together. So even if you buy tickets that are spaced apart, it doesn’t mean that people will actually do that once they enter the cinema,” one warned.
Now that some cinemas are back in business, operators also have to decide which films to show. The problem is that distributors are reluctant to send out major releases when audience numbers are so unpredictable. No new films are expected to be launched until early May, so for the time being cinemas are being forced to play reruns.
China Film Group, the largest of the country’s film distributors has recognised the problem, signing agreements with the studios to let theatres screen some of the older (often patriotic) blockbusters like American Dreams in China, Wolf Totem, Wolf Warrior II and The Wandering Earth. To give operators a chance to make up some of their lost revenues, the theatres are also being allowed to collect the full profit at the box office.
In a similar approach Warner Brothers has announced that it will re-release Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with a tweaking that incorporates 3D effects, although the studio did not provide the official date for when the movie will become available to view.
The news quickly became the highest trending topic on Sina Weibo, with netizens remembering their pleasure at seeing the initial instalment of the Harry Potter series the first time round (in 2001).
“I’m so excited I could scream! The first film is my favourite out of the whole franchise,” one netizen gushed. “I can’t wait to go to the cinema just to watch this film again, assuming the outbreak is under control,” another enthused.
In the meantime takings have been extremely thin, however. A cinema in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi was one of the best performers, selling just 371 tickets at Rmb30 a pop on Wednesday. Total box office takings as of last Friday were just Rmb13,800 ($1,952).
“Even though cinemas in areas that are deemed low-risk have resumed opening in an orderly fashion, it looks like audiences are reluctant to go back to cinemas, let alone pay to watch a film they have seen before,” Entertainment Unicorn concluded.
Industry observers believe it won’t be long before new titles will hit the big screen. Some reckon that Hollywood films that have already been cleared and awaiting release – including 1917, Ford v. Ferrari and Jojo Rabbit, for instance – as well as new local fare like Detective Chinatown 3 will finally make their debut in China.
Keeping track, Apr 1, 2020: The return to normality is likely to be a stop-and-start process – as confirmed by the reclosure of more than 500 cinemas that had welcomed back moviegoers last Friday. “This second closure will not be a one or two-week issue,” says The Hollywood Reporter, noting that the directive was issued presumably on fears of a second wave of infections.
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