In early March one of Hong Kong’s biggest cinema chains, UA Cinemas, abruptly shut down operations. Its closing marked yet another casualty of the pandemic in the movie industry. This week, news surfaced that Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group is also selling down its stake in the world’s largest cinema chain AMC Entertainment, which narrowly avoided bankruptcy four times in the last year.
Meanwhile, after a record-breaking box office during the Chinese New Year, China’s cinemas are back in a slump. According to 36kr, a news portal, the average daily box office take after the holiday period has been hovering at around Rmb35 million ($5.4 million), compared with Rmb60 million in 2019 (cinemas were closed at this point in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) and Rmb90 million in 2018.
The problem is that after a very packed Chinese New Year window, there have not been any new blockbusters hitting the big screen. With few options, cinemas are screening older films as a way to keep going.
Last weekend saw the re-release of James Cameron’s Avatar – the 3D science fiction epic set on the planet of Pandora – more than a decade after the record-breaking film first came out in China.
“At least we have re-runs, which is better than nothing,” one cinema operator lamented.
Some attempted to make fun out of the situation. “Have we time-travelled back to 2009? The cinemas are showing Avatar, Shanghai’s key A-share index still hovers around 3,000 and Beijing is clouded out by smog [see page 18],” one widely forwarded internet meme suggested.
In previous years China has relied on Hollywood big-budget films and smaller homegrown features to fill the gap after the Spring Festival holiday. In March 2019 Captain Marvel dominated the box office. The previous year Black Panther was the top grossing film of the month.
But as Western studios have not released any new titles and the supply of domestic films is barely catching up, cinema operators are pinning their hopes on the likes of Avatar. It is reported that the Lord of the Rings trilogy, remastered in higher definition, will be the next re-release.
Still, it seems that Avatar, while an oldie, is still a goodie. So far it has raked in Rmb150 million in ticket sales.
Disney should be pleased – the studio acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019 and with it Avatar. Four sequels are planned for the franchise. The next instalment, which has been delayed several times, is reportedly scheduled for release in December 2022.
Some in China may have got the timing confused: “Wait, I thought this was the screening for Avatar 2?” one cinemagoer told Entertainment Unicorn, a showbiz blog.
Cameron, who is currently in New Zealand working on post-production work for the Avatar sequels, told China Daily that he feels “truly incredible about what has happened in China”. In an enthusiastic quote, the director told the newspaper: “You guys are leading the charge. That’s fantastic. I love it that you’ve got the virus under control enough and you’ve got the economy re-emerging, as well as cinema re-emerging.”
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