China's Cinemas Flicker Back to Life After 6-Month Coronavirus Closure

Shanghai Skyline Night Getty - H 2018
studioEAST/Getty Images

Ticket sales for the day were just shy of $500,000 at around 8:30 p.m. local time. Just one new film, a local drama, was released Monday, with most cinemas showing rereleases like Disney's 'Coco' or local blockbuster 'Wolf Warrior 2.'

Movie theaters in cities across China opened their doors to the public for the first time in six months Monday, raising industry hopes that the severe revenue losses that have plagued the world's second-largest film market since the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic may finally be nearing an end.

Chinese regulators said last week that cinemas in low-risk areas would be given the green light to resume business, provided they followed an array of new public safety protocols. Cinema chains have scrambled in the days following the announcement to ready their staff — many of whom were furloughed since February — and to cobble together a lineup of films to show.

The coronavirus has been well contained in China since March and most of the country is now categorized as low-risk. But it was clear Monday that the cinema industry's restart will be a gradual process that won't happen overnight. The country's largest cinema chain, Wanda Film, told The Hollywood Reporter that it opened just 43 of its more than 600 multiplexes on Monday. Many theaters were up and running in cities stretching from Shanghai to Sichuan Provence, but cinemas in the capital Beijing, which was hit with a COVID-19 flareup last month, remain shuttered.

Total ticket sales for the day had reached just shy of $475,000 (RMB 3.3 million RMB) by around 8:30 p.m. local time, according to data from leading ticketing app Maoyan. The top title of the day was A First Farewell, a drama about the difficulties faced by China's Uighur minority, which earned about $186,000. The movie won the best film honor at the Berlin International Film Festival's Generation K-Plus section last year but made its local premiere Monday.

Nearly every other film that screened was a rerelease, ranging from Disney/Pixar's Coco, which looked set to finish the day with about $175,000, to holdover thriller A Sheep Without a Shepherd, landing in third place with around $171,000. Other fan favorites brought back for the reboot included military action epic Wolf Warrior 2, last year's animated blockbusters Ne Zha and White Snake, and romcoms like Beijing Love Story and How Long Will I Love You.

Chinese theater operators will have somewhat fresher product to lure back customers by later this week. Sony's action pic Bloodshot and Universal's adventure epic Dolittle are set to open on July 24, followed one week later by Amblin's WWI film 1917 and Paramount's Sonic the Hedgehog. All four of the studio titles originally were scheduled for release in February until the virus emerged.

The various safety requirements that China's Film Bureau has imposed on all reopening cinemas could constrain their earnings potential for the foreseeable future — even if audience demand proves robust. The new rules include a strict 30 percent cap on seating capacity and a 50 percent reduction from the usual number of screenings held by each cinema per day. Theater operators also are forbidden for selling concessions, a vital source of high-margin revenue.

China's box office totaled $9.2 billion in 2019. Prior to Monday's reboot, ticket sales for 2020 were just $315 million.