Chinese cinemas had pinned their hopes on “Avatar: The Way of Water” to buoy the country’s struggling theaters hit hard by the pandemic. But the recovery, however, hasn’t been as expected.
While the much-anticipated sci-fi sequel of James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster “Avatar” has amassed around 530 million yuan ($76 million) in China so far since its release on Dec. 16, domestic ticketing platform Maoyan has now cut its potential total revenue forecast by around 1 billion yuan. And though the movie initially gave a boost to over 10,000 cinemas open for business — over 80% of the country’s total — the figure has started to drop this week.
The movie’s release comes as China let go of most of its COVID control measures in early December, with the virus ripping through the country. And while some hoped that this would help many struggling businesses and bring back the masses to cinemas, the opposite has happened — many people have chosen to stay home either due to infection or in fear of contracting the virus.
Zhu Teng, manager of three cinemas in the eastern province of Zhejiang and the southwestern Sichuan province, had anticipated the new Hollywood release could replicate the popularity of the first film from 13 years ago. But ticket sales for “Avatar: The Way of Water” — even though it accounted for most of his cinemas’ revenue in the past week — were only able to ease some of his financial woes.
“We didn’t expect that even ‘Avatar’ wouldn’t be able to save the movie market,” Zhu told Sixth Tone, adding that he expected the Lunar New Year holiday to be different. “The pandemic isn’t over. Audiences aren’t ready to return to cinemas yet.”
China’s film industry has been caught in the crossfires of the country’s stringent anti-COVID policy for the past three years, though it slightly recovered in 2021. The domestic box office collection was at an 11-year low in November, casting a shadow on the sector that overtook North America as the world’s largest in 2020. Despite several hits such as “Moon Man” and “Home Coming,” China’s box office this year only amassed 29 billion yuan as of Friday, down by nearly 38% from 2021, paling in comparison to the pre-pandemic revenue total of 64 billion yuan in 2019.
The country’s film sector has also struggled with a lack of new releases this year, which has added challenges in attracting audiences and led to lower footfall in cinemas, industry insiders said. Data from an industry report from Wanda Film Group’s data center shows only 263 films were released as of late October, 38% less than 2021, of which 38 were foreign movies compared with 123 in 2019.
“The film market wasn’t normal and was all over the place this year,” Zhu said. “Some films were screened almost throughout the year. Not many new releases were available in a popular slot. It’s like thick snow is covering the entire market as if in a freezing winter.”
Zhu Yuqing, secretary-general of the film division of the Beijing Cultural Industry Investment and Financing Association, told Sixth Tone that repeated outbreaks and accompanying control measures had a big impact on movie production, distribution, and screening. He added that regulators’ control over films and unclear review standards have made it hard for film producers to launch new projects and get movies greenlighted.
“Those of us in the film industry felt very desperate and lost throughout this year,” said Zhu Yuqing. “Due to uncertainties both from COVID and film-related policies, we didn’t have any direction on production, shooting, investment, and promotion. Such disorder led to an absence of new films, which was rare in the past three years.”
Despite fewer releases compared with previous years, domestic patriotic movies still grabbed a large slice of China’s film market this year. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” and “Home Coming” both led the way for ticket sales in separate holiday periods when they were released, grossing around 4 billion yuan and 1.6 billion yuan, respectively.
But these occasional hits didn’t make up for the losses, as many theaters largely remained shut due to sporadic outbreaks throughout the year. As of October, about 92% of China’s some 124,00 cinemas were closed at least once this year, of which 1,191 cinemas had shut down for a whole month, according to the Wanda report.
Cinema manager Zhu Teng said he was unable to pay the rent for one of his movie theaters in the southern city of Dongguan and it closed down this year. The other three were “struggling to stay alive.”
“Every day, we had no idea if we could open for business the next day,” he said, adding that he has slashed the number of staff by half this year. “I felt anxious all day long. People were also not in the mood to watch films due to strict lockdowns.”
As a result, many filmgoers in China are now either unwilling or unable to watch movies in theaters, with them visiting cinemas 1.9 times a year on average in 2022, down from twice last year, the Wanda report showed.
“With no new movies, I paid less attention or kept up to date about what to watch,” said 23-year-old Wang Yuzhuo, who has slashed her trips to the theater by three-fourths this year. “My passion just faded.”
But despite the uncertain business outlook, cinema managers like Zhu Teng are still hopeful that the industry will eventually bounce back next year. Though “Avatar: The Way of Water” failed to become the much-needed “life saver,” he believed more quality films — both domestic and foreign — would be able to win back audiences after COVID settles down in the coming months.
“Next year will be more positive,” Zhu Teng said. “But I expect it will take at least three years or even more for the film industry to recover to the pre-pandemic level. The memory of the past three years is too strong.”
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: VCG)