China to Rerelease Old Blockbusters to Help Cinemas Reopen

Wanda China Cinema - Getty - H 2016
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Local studios and regulators have banded together to give cinemas permission to screen former blockbusters for free, including 'The Wandering Earth,' 'Wolf Warrior 2,' 'Wolf Totem' and Lebanese indie hit 'Capernaum.'

As cinemas throughout North America and Europe move toward total lockdown, movie theaters in China, the world's second-biggest box office market, are beginning to take steps toward reopening.

On Thursday, China hit a major milestone in its efforts to contain the new coronavirus: For the first time since the outbreak began, health authorities reported no new local infections of the virus. As public health has rapidly improved, local officials have shifted their focus toward rebooting the economy — including popular everyday consumer activities like moviegoing.

Over the past week, a smattering of small cinemas in remote regions of the country have attempted to reopen. According to leading ticketing app Maoyan, 17 cinemas had returned to business by Wednesday, all of them located in far-flung areas of the country like Xinjiang, Qinghai and Fujian. Total ticket sales nationwide were next to nothing, however, totaling just $1,070 (RMB 7,606).

Among the various challenges Chinese theater operators face in restarting their businesses is a dearth of desirable product to play. The hodgepodge collection of cinemas in operation this week has been showing a short list of titles that were available to them back in December, before the crisis began. All of China's biggest new films were pulled from the release calendar just prior to the Lunar New Year holiday in January when studios began to anticipate the coming severity of the epidemic. Distributors are now naturally reluctant to set new dates for their films until they are confident that the audience is ready to return to the multiplex en masse.

China's Film Bureau, working with the distribution arm of the state-backed studio China Film Group, has stepped in with a provisional plan to give theaters some additional screening options. China Film Group said in a widely circulated statement that it would distribute the prints of five previously released box office hits to any cinema that is interested in showing them. Government regulators have worked out a deal with the rights holders to the five titles to allow cinemas to keep 100 percent of the revenue from all ticket sales. Typically, distributors and rights holders take home 43 percent of ticket revenue, with 51 percent going to theaters and the rest to taxes and government fees.

The films included in the program are China's biggest box office hit of all time, Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), sci-fi tentpole The Wandering Earth (2019), period drama Wolf Totem (2015), Peter Chan's American Dreams in China (2013), and Lebanese indie drama Capernaum (2018), which became a surprise hit in China in 2019, earning $54 million.

An executive at a company that owns the rights to one of the films included in the program described the effort as a "charity exercise" to help the country's ailing cinema companies. "Many of them are really struggling and will soon go bankrupt if they don't get more help," the executive said. "More creative efforts and support will be needed."

Warner Bros. on Thursday announced over Chinese social media that it would be releasing a new 4K version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) in China. A release date wasn't given, and it wasn't clear whether the title would be offered as part of China Film Group's cinema support scheme. There has been talk in the industry that China Film Group has approached the U.S. studios about getting catalog titles to cinemas on preferential terms to aid in the rebuilding process. 

An employee at Warner Bros. Beijing office didn't respond to THR's requests for comment. 

Beijing has tasked China's provincial governments with setting their own policies and guidelines for when and how movie theaters can reopen. Major population centers, like Qingdao and Sichuan, have recently issued statements indicating that they will be moving toward a relaunch soon.

The non-centralized approach makes sense given how some areas of the country have been much harder hit by the coronavirus epidemic than others. But the hodgepodge of policies also has created logistical headaches for major circuits that operate on a nationwide basis. Common safety requirements include requiring one empty seat in every direction, scanning customers' temperatures and requiring the wearing of masks. There also have been reports of more extreme requirements in some provinces, such as telling theaters to prepare emergency quarantine rooms and to provide masks and surgical gloves to all ticket holders. 

Sources in contact with Chinese regulators, such as Richard Gelfond, CEO of Imax, which operates over 700 giant screens in the country, have told THR that they expect Chinese cinemas to lure moviegoers back to the multiplex gradually, starting with re-screened catalog titles, moving to new releases of smaller local movies and Hollywood prestige pictures (such as the Oscar films that were bumped from local release in February) and then on to new Chinese tentpoles — perhaps as soon as May.

In a reversal of fortune from just weeks ago, major Hollywood blockbusters probably won't return to the Chinese market until whenever the public health situation in North America stabilizes.