It’s been a rough few years for Chinese cinemas.
“Whenever there is an outbreak, cinemas are the first to be shut down, and the last to reopen,” said Qu Lei, a movie theater manager in a city in Jiangsu province, who used a pseudonym as she is not authorized to speak to the media.
The 39-year-old told Sixth Tone that her cinema has been closed four times since it was founded in December 2019. It was shut for about half a year in 2020, for two months last year, and twice since the start of March for more than 50 days in total. The latest shutdown was from April 27 to Thursday.
About a third of the country’s movie theaters are currently closed due to Omicron outbreaks. But industry players say they have broader worries about winning back audiences. A dearth of quality films and competition from emerging entertainment genres could break China’s theater-going habit, they say.
But box office sales were hit hard during the Labor Day holiday, which ended Wednesday, usually a lucrative time for the country’s film industry. All cinemas in Shanghai have been closed since mid-March, while Beijing also shut its movie theaters during the holiday.
Total box office revenue for the five-day period dropped 82% to 297 million yuan ($44.5 million) year-on-year, with 67.6% of cinemas in operation, according to leading film market data service provider Dengta.
Qu told Sixth Tone that her cinema has cut full-time staff by about a half, to 10 people, over the past two years. Payroll still costs over 100,000 yuan a month, according to Qu.
The theater reopened for two days in late April between two shutdowns, bringing in daily box office revenue of over 20,000 yuan. That would have been a lackluster performance last year, but it was enough to rank among the top cinemas in the country April 25.
“The figure proves that audiences aren’t ditching cinemas and movies,” Qu said.
Qu said she’s less anxious than she was in early 2020, when the reopening date kept being put back. What worries her this time is a lack of quality new releases to show when she resumes operations.
“The film market will remain weak unless there are new movies that really make people want to come to theaters,” she said. “Before that, even if we reopen, the box office revenue will not be very strong.”
Dong Wenxin, another cinema manager in the eastern city of Ji’nan, whose theater has been shut down since March 31, wrote in social media posts that the largest problem of China’s film market is that movies don’t meet the tastes of the audience.
“Films have value. They’re one of the reasons life is enjoyable,” she wrote. “The audience is always there, but the market isn’t offering them what they want to see.”
Coming soon: not much
Theater closures are contributing to a weak flow of new releases, industry insiders say. In the face of repeated closures, studios have made fewer films and delayed planned releases.
Only three new films were released for the Labor Day holiday this year, compared to 13 last year.
Zhu Yuqing, secretary general of the film division of the Beijing Cultural Industry Investment and Financing Association, told Sixth Tone that the repeated COVID-19 flare-ups have hammered the industry for two years, leaving many in the sector hesitant about developing new projects.
“The previous shutdown in 2020 was like pressing a pause button,” Zhu said. “But this shutdown has impacted every link of the film industry chain, leading to stagnation in investment, production, distribution, and promotion.”
“Meanwhile, films focus more on social benefits than aesthetic and entertainment functions,” he said. “The young audience may stop going to the cinema if there’s just one genre that does not appeal to them.”
China’s large screens have often been dominated by domestic patriotic movies in recent years. Blockbuster war films such as the “Battle at Lake Changjin” series and “The Eight Hundred” have brought in hundreds of millions of yuan at the box office.
Wen Te, who has 10 years of experience in film distribution, told Sixth Tone that he was concerned that young people would turn to other leisure activities if things don’t improve.
“During the shutdown in 2020, cinemas thought things would get better after it ended. But now they are afraid of resuming operations, as there are few new films and many cinemas will run at a loss,” said the 33-year-old.
An April report on the development of cinemas in 2021 by cultural consulting firm Top Century warns that new forms of entertainment such as live action role-playing murder mysteries, and escape rooms are taking the place of movies for some young people.
Despite uncertainty over future prospects, Qu hopes that her cinema will reopen soon, with better domestic films and more foreign films.
“We need to concentrate on creating good content and keep the audience in mind. Films are made for them,” said Zhu.
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: VCG)