There may be a glimmer of hope —may being the operative word– in regards to China’s movie theaters re-opening after being shuttered since the Lunar New Year holiday over the COVID-19 outbreak.
We hear from multiple sources, both industry and on-the-ground in the PRC, that China Film Group, the state-owned film enterprise that oversees theaters, dates films, finances, produces and more, is planning to re-open its Beijing offices as early as next week. That move would come as a positive sign to the major Hollywood studios that the PRC is slowly getting its exhibition back up and running, an infrastructure of some 70K screens that since their closing has amounted a $2 billion-plus loss.
The hope is for China’s theaters to re-open by mid-to-late April in time for the May Day holiday (coincidentally, the global-day-and-date release of Disney/Marvel’s Black Widow on May 1), a maneuver that raises several questions rather than an expected boom for a country which saw its box office reach a high of $9.2B last year. Before China closed its theaters this year, its box office through the first 20 days of this year stood at $3.9B, +157% over the same period a year ago. The worst case scenario is for cinemas to re-open in the PRC by July.
Such murmurs about exhibition’s slow crawl back emerge in the wake of China’s COVID-19 cases slowing down, just as cases in the U.S. and other countries are surging. CNN says that at its worst, such embattled provinces as Hubei reported thousands of new cases a day but according to China’s National Health Commission yesterday there were only 24 new cases. Forty percent of those originated from abroad including travelers from Italy and the U.S.
On Tuesday, in a show of confidence, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited one of the most infected regions, Wuhan, which has 67,7K of the entire country’s 80,8K cases. Reports are that the government has cleared some neighborhoods free of infection, with temporary shelters used to isolate those diagnosed already closing.
In cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the government has encouraged citizens to return back to their way of life, though with extreme safety. In addition to hotels, restaurants and retail businesses resuming operations, we hear that Chinese exhibition offices have re-opened, and U.S. entertainment corps too like Universal and Imax, in accordance with government guidelines. Those rules include rotational shifts of no more than four hours per employee with 30% of the workforce occupying an office at one time, not to mention sanitization and personal safety protocols. Shanghai Disney recently reopened their Disney village with a limitation of no more than 5K visitors a day.
There’s also word that theaters can start applying to the government to reopen.
At the end of February, the Beijing Film Bureau and the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control issued safety guidelines for cinemas, which led some to believe that theaters were being given a greenlight to re-open. Response on Chinese social media was heated, some suspicious about handing out so many personal details and that such a move was too early with exhibition believing such guidelines were onerous.
Among the host of precautions outlined by the Beijing authorities are for cinemas to obtain permission from relevant departments and establish an epidemic prevention and control plan once resuming operations is approved. Seating inside auditoriums will be required to be in alternate rows, with no adjacent seats sold. Theaters will also be disinfected after every screening and at least eight times per day in public areas. Moviegoers will be asked for personal information which will be registered at the box office.
However, the local government the next day clarified that the directive was for future use, as a means to prepare for when cinemas come back online. Chen Bei, Deputy Secretary-General of the Beijing Municipal Government, in a video posted to Weibo by Beijing Daily News, said conditions were not yet in place to resume operations: “We have not yet made a request to allow the film industry to open. The designation of such a guideline is to lay a solid foundation and prepare for the smooth start of business under the conditions allowed by the epidemic prevention and control situation.”
That said, we heard that some independent exhibitors in the PRC actually did open for business, showing older movies from back in December, i.e. Sheep Without a Shepherd. However, in a recent given day there were only 20-30 showtimes listed on local ticketing website Tao Piao Piao in the 1.43 billion populated country, which would count as many as 100K showtimes daily when business is running normally. Macau’s cinema and casinos have re-opened, we understand, as have some theaters in Yunnan province, in southwest China. Still, the big circuits remain closed.
USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen tells us, “China is a big place and Beijing is far away and unable to monitor every development. The central government’s policy is to control the virus and get the economy moving again, which of course can be contradictory. Beijing’s policies are often contradictory, so local areas and local officials have to decide what they can do that will help the local economy and local stability even if it violates one of Beijing’s contradictory precepts. In this case, some localities with no cases of the virus may well have decided that the benefits to the local economy and a very bored public would justify a quiet opening of some theaters.”
So once China Film Group throws its doors back open, what can we expect? Here’s what some industry sources are expecting, though not definite in any way:
–Many predict that the first wave of films to be released in China will be the older local one that were stockpiled, i.e. Detective Chinatown 3 and The Rescue. Even major studio international distribution execs believe it’s a good idea to lead with local movies to get the masses back in the habit of moviegoing. Unlike those U.S. titles that have been cleared in China, there’s no concern that these have been pirated as they haven’t seen the light of day. Some say it would be good for the China box office to get two big features in before Disny’s Mulan or Black Widow arrives (both of which haven’t been dated yet by China Film Group).
–Those U.S. titles that have been cleared for release in China and are awaiting release —Jojo Rabbit, Ford v Ferrari, Bad Boys 4 Life, 1917, Dolittle and Sonic the Hedgehog– when will they be released? Will they all be dumped into China’s cinemas on the same day? Is it worth releasing them given that they’re likely pirated? There really isn’t a consensus here from sources, some believing that these pics may will still have a shot at making whatever money they can. Even though theaters can apply to reopen, some international distribution execs believe it’s a chicken-and-egg scenario. A chain like Wanda will want new movies, not old ones.
–And what about Mulan? Given the back-up of product, it could go as late as a month-and-a-half, if not more, after the pic’s global day-and-date of March 27. By the time it hits China, won’t it too have to worry about piracy? Those close to the film aren’t so worried. Should the movie become the blockbuster that it was built to be, that in turn would become a great selling factor in China. Should Mulan be pirated before its theatrical release, sources believe there’s still an audience among China’s moviegoers who would want to see the Disney spectacle, which is an homage to many of the local epic war pics that the country currently makes, on a big screen. A youhaoxi website recently reported that in a recent poll, the want-to-see for Mulan among Chinese moviegoers was north of 63%.
–The question, of course, remains how many want to head back. A recent Weibo survey showed that out of 5,500 respondents, 88% said they would not return to cinemas until the epidemic is contained.
Stateside, despite all movie theaters remaining open, both at the Cinemark in New Rochelle, NY, a city which New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo designated a containment zone, sending the National Guard in, and in Santa Clara County, CA which issued a health ban of gatherings over 1k people, U.S. exhibitors remain worried.
As China’s exhibition begins its healing process, an unfortunate bleaker picture at the global box office unfolds.
Deadline’s Tom Grater contributed to this report