China’s Movie Theaters Prepare to Open as Coronavirus Crisis Slows

Many movie theaters in China may be open as early as May Day if things continue to improve.

Movie Theater Box Office Empty
Photo: Pexels

There is a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, and it may shine on big screens. While the box offices in North America and Europe are shutting down in containment efforts, China’s theaters could reopen by the end of the month, according to Variety. The People’s Republic of China closed its theaters nationwide on Jan. 23.

The state-owned China Film Group, which oversees theaters, schedules film openings and produces movies, may reopen its Beijing offices as early as next week. The plan should see the country’s theaters begin opening doors by mid-to-late April.

“Our cinema is preparing to re-open, but we haven’t been formally told when exactly we can officially resume,” Broadway Cinematheque programmer Yang Yang told Variety. “It’s unlikely a nation-wide directive to re-open will come down from the film bureau, because every province and region is at a different stage of epidemic prevention, so the requirements for re-opening will vary. It’s more likely that over a period of time, cinemas will slowly, progressively re-open.”

After China went through its first day without a new coronavirus case yesterday, some are hopeful the country’s crisis may have reached their plateau. The number of people who died from COVID-19 and the number of confirmed cases outside China surpassed the number of deaths and cases in the country on Monday, March 16. There have been no new coronavirus cases for 27 consecutive days in the far western province of Xinjiang, where the first cinema had a soft reopening Monday. By Wednesday, 17 theaters across the country reopened.  Some of the country’s other tourist attractions have also reopened, like the Shanghai Ocean Aquarium. But business is slow.

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The PRC is still adhering to social distancing recommendations. Theaters in Urumqi are selling tickets online for pairs of seats spaced far apart from other occupied seats.

The re-opening will come in waves. Variety also reported China Film Group plans to reissue major films in a “charity model,” allowing theaters to keep all the income to recoup coronavirus losses. The films are Peter Chan’s American Dreams in China (2013), Wolf Totem (2015), directed by France’s Jean-Jacques Annaud, Wolf Warrior 2, and science fiction film The Wandering Earth. An announcement released to cinema operators also mentioned Green Book, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (2018), and A Dog’s Purpose. The producers and distributors of the films will donate their usual 43 percent cut to the theaters.

American films which have already been cleared by the PRC like 1917, Bad Boys for Life, Dolittle, Ford v. Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, and Sonic the Hedgehog, will be released during the second wave, which will happen in mid-to-late-April. The new Chinese film Detective Chinatown is also scheduled to premiere then.

Variety also reported that Warner Bros. intends to use movie magic to help lure moviegoers to China’s theaters to draw in crowds over the May 1 Labor Day holiday, May Day. They will release a 3D, 4K restoration of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese cinemas to draw in crowds. While no firm release date has been set, the movie will probably open on April 30.

Meanwhile AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas have closed and predict U.S. theater closures could last as long as 12 weeks, while the cities of Los Angeles and New York have closed all of their theaters outright.

The coronavirus cost China’s box office over $2 billion. Once people go back to work in the country, studios will know how best to schedule the backlog of films awaiting censorship approval and release. The current worst case scenario is theaters in the country will reopen by July.