The big screen is back

On Monday most cinemas in China reopened, to industry relief


Li Yitong: stars in Love You Forever, set for release in cinemas

After 178 days of shutdown, China’s film industry has finally reopened. On Monday cinemas deemed to be in “low-risk” zones for Covid-19 infection were given the green light to welcome back audiences. As most of the country is now classed as lower risk for infection, it is essentially a national reopening (although theatres in Beijing, victim of a fresh outbreak last month, are still shut).

Strict conditions were still imposed on returning cinemagoers. Each screening room was capped at 30% of its capacity, and the number of movies shown per venue was limited to half of the standard selection. Films cannot exceed 120 minutes in length either. Tickets must be bought online and customers must sit more than a metre apart. Temperatures are taken on entry and masks must be worn at all times. In a further blow to their bottom lines, cinemas are prohibited from selling both food and beverages.

With these kind of conditions customers can be forgiven for choosing to stay at home and watching a film online. Studios have also complained that the reopening rules means that a lot of their films will have to be held back, because of the time limits on broadcasts. “A lot of films that have won awards in multiple film festivals will not be able to make it to the theatres. The only option is to release the films online,” Sina Entertainment thundered. “What do you do with films like Avatar that is 167 minutes long? Cut it into two? When do you release the second half of the film? Do you screen them 10 minutes apart or the next day? And besides, who says over 120 minutes is unsafe?”

All the same, most cinemas operators were pleased about the reopening. The sector has been battered since the coronavirus shutdown on January 23. Theatres have struggled to survive financially, even leasing out their venues for wedding photos (see WiC494) to make ends meet.

Braver cinema fans have been taking their seats once again. As of mid-afternoon on Monday, Rmb3 million ($429,106) worth of tickets had been sold on Maoyan, the largest of the ticketing platforms.

“All the employees were so happy. It’s not about how much money we made… we are happy that audiences have not abandoned us,” one cinema manager wrote on weibo, after his theatre reopened.

Investors responded to news of the reopening positively too. Wanda Film, the cinema operator controlled by property tycoon Wang Jianlin, saw its share price rise almost 6% on the day the announcement was made. Chains like Hengdian Entertainment and Guangzhou Jinyi Media also saw their stocks rise.

But while the bigger multiplexes are desperate to do business again, the major studios seem reluctant to supply them with new blockbusters, worried that the films won’t recoup their costs in socially-distanced auditoriums. This week saw only one new opening – of an arthouse film that takes place in Xinjiang. The rest of the schedule was filled by reruns like Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) and Wandering Earth (2019). Crowd-pleasers like Disney’s much-anticipated Mulan, which stars local actress Liu Yifei, are yet to set their release dates.

Some have, however, chosen to bite the bullet. For instance, Love You Forever, which stars starlet Li Yitong and Taiwanese heartthrob Lee Hong-chi, is scheduled for an August release.

Industry insiders warn that the studios need to serve up a broader selection of new films, or many cinemas could end up losing more money from restarting operations than if they had stayed shut. “When they were closed, a lot of cinema operators could justify not paying rent. But now that they have reopened, a lot of landlords are going to come knocking. On top of that water, electricity, salaries and disinfecting the cinema are all large expenses,” Sina Entertainment reckons. “Coupled with not being able to sell food and drink, it is impossible for them to make money.”

Entertainment Industry, a blog about show business, agreed that the return to commercial normality isn’t going to happen overnight. “But in any case, the film industry is reopening and that is the most important thing. Just like all the other industries that have returned to work after the pandemic, it takes time to rebuild people’s confidence,” it concluded.

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