Chinese New Year Film Releases Canceled in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

Hankou Railway Station, Wuhan - Getty - H 2020
Xiaolu Chu/Getty Images

China's Lunar New Year is the biggest blockbuster week in the world by far, generating as much as $1 billion in box office revenue, making the surprise cancelation a devastating blow to the Beijing film industry.

China's biggest movies of 2020, which were scheduled to release Saturday on the first day of Chinese New Year, have been preemptively pulled from cinemas in response to the coronavirus outbreak that has plunged the country into crisis. 

Chinese New Year is the biggest blockbuster period in the world by far, and the coming week was expected to generate as much as $1 billion in ticket sales revenue.

Distributors and exhibitors in Beijing tell The Hollywood Reporter that the decision to postpone the releases was made voluntarily by the major Chinese studios. Medical experts in China have warned the public against congregating in crowded places, which distributors naturally interpreted as including cinemas. 

The studios behind various tentpoles slated for release on Friday and Saturday issued a series of statements over social media in short succession on Thursday announcing the cancellations. 

As the number of coronavirus cases soared to nearly 600 infected and 17 dead on Wednesday night, Beijing took the unprecedented step of announcing a lockdown on the entire city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated. Residents in the city of 11 million — larger than New York City or London — described a mad dash by thousands to flee before the ban on trains, planes and buses leaving the metropolis went into effect Wednesday at 10 a.m. local time.

Late on Thursday, two additional large cities were put on mandatory lockdown. Huanggang, with a population of 7.5 million people, said it would be enacting strict travel bans at midnight. Nearby Ezhou, home to another 1 million citizens, said it would exercise similar measures. International experts describe Beijing's efforts to suppress the epidemic by containing cities totaling nearly 20 million people as an unprecedented public health experiment. 

Among the big-budget movies that had been set for release on Saturday were Wanda's comedy action sequel Detective Chinatown 3, Huanxi Media's comedy tentpole Lost in Russia and sports epic Leap, Dante Lam's action vehicle The Rescue, and family animation Boonie Bears: The Wild Life, among several others. Local regulators have always blocked Hollywood films from releasing during the festival period to give home-team studios an uncontested run at the box office. 

As of midday Wednesday, more than $52 million worth of tickets had already been sold just for Saturday. The Wandering Earth, the biggest release of last year's Spring Festival, eventually earned a whopping $671 million. Local analysts had been bullish on this year's holiday slate, forecasting robust growth and a slew of new records. 

But signs of trouble started to emerge on Monday, as Beijing began to concede the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, admitting that it had reached numerous Chinese cities outside of Wuhan and that the virus appeared to spread easily between humans. On Monday and Tuesday, shares in many of China's leading film companies plummeted on the local stock markets. Some theater chains began offering refunds to customers who had pre-bought tickets but now wanted to stay home.

Wanda's Detective Chinatown 3, starring fan favorites Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran, had been the pre-sales leader prior to the sudden cancellations (Detective Chinatown 2 earned $544 million in 2018). The studio giant put out a statement to the public apologizing for the schedule change and offering refunds. "Safety and health is the common wish of all, and in the face of this epidemic, we have united hands to overcome these difficulties." The company added that a new release date would be announced at a later time. 

The Lunar New Year in China is commonly described as the world’s largest annual migration of people, with hundreds of millions of travelers dispersing across the country on visits to hometowns, or for treasured once-a-year vacations. In recent years, moviegoing emerged as the go-to group activity over the holiday, second only to festive dinners with family and friends — not unlike the Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Years corridors in the U.S., but only on a vastly larger scale. 

But the same factors that made the Lunar New Year a bonanza for film exhibitors have now become a nightmare for epidemiologists. On Wednesday, a senior health official in Beijing warned that the the mass migration and congregation of the Chinese populace over the holiday would make the coronavirus epidemic much more difficult to contain.