U.S. Release of Chinese New Year Films Canceled as Coronavirus Crisis Escalates

'Detective Chinatown' still- H 2020
YouTube screen grab

Warner Bros. was set to release Wanda's 'Detective Chinatown 3' on Saturday, giving the action comedy the biggest North American outing to date for a Mandarin-language movie.

China's major movie studios are scrapping the North American release plans for their big Lunar New Year blockbusters after being forced to shelve the projects at home because of the growing coronavirus outbreak.

On Thursday afternoon, the leading studios in Beijing announced simultaneously that all seven of the major films that were set for release on Saturday, the first day of the weeklong Lunar holiday, would be put on hold.

Chinese New Year is the biggest box office period in the world by far, and the coming week was expected to generate as much as $1 billion in ticket sales revenue (think the Christmas/New Year's corridor on steroids). But with confirmed cases of the coronavirus climbing to nearly 600, medical authorities in China warned the public against congregating in crowded places, and distributors interpreted that as applying to cinemas. There were fears that even if the releases went ahead, theaters would be deserted.

Warner Bros had picked up the North American rights to what was looking to be the holiday season frontrunner, Wanda's action comedy sequel Detective Chinatown 3. Warners had set the film for a continent-wide, North American release on Friday. The studio described the release plans — spanning 150 cinemas with limited IMAX engagements — as the biggest outing for a Chinese-language film in recent memory.

Sources at Wanda tell The Hollywood Reporter that the Warners release will be put on hold in tandem with the China release delay.

Dante Lam's patriotic action adventure film The Rescue, produced for upwards of $90 million, was similarly set for a significant North American opening courtesy of China's own CMC Pictures. A source close to CMC says those plans also have been scrapped.

Hong Kong-based Huanxi Media would have been the studio to watch this Chinese New Year season. The fast-growing studio had two of the season's most-buzzed-about projects, Xu Zheng's comedy smash Lost in Russia (a sequel to his beloved 2015 blockbuster Lost in Hong Kong) and Leap, Peter Chan's decade-spanning sports drama, starring Gong Li and Huang Bo, about China's national volleyball team. Both projects had been generating strong word of mouth throughout the industry in Beijing, and a source at Huanxi said the studio was in advanced discussions to sell the U.S. rights to both projects. "These discussions will definitely be impacted now," the source said.

The Chinese studios had several good reasons for making sure their most important movies of the calendar didn't open offshore before at home in China.

The Chinese theatrical market is profoundly trend driven, with online buzz driving or dampening the box office momentum of a film within hours of its release. Chinese films also still make the vast majority of their money in their domestic market. Last year's Chinese New Year champion The Wandering Earth (2018), for example, earned $5.8 million in North America compared to $690 million in China. Studios, naturally, would be very reluctant to risk having the buzz surrounding a comparatively low-value U.S. outing travel back to China to affect the movie's real earning potential. A pirate copy of a tentpole hitting the internet before it opens in China could be even more devastating.

Chinese distributors also are required to get special permission to open a film overseas before its local release, so it's not clear whether going ahead with the U.S. openings would have even been legal.

As news surrounding the coronavirus has worsened, shares in many of China's leading film companies have plummeted on the local stock markets this week. Distributors and theaters are working with ticketing platforms to offer refunds on the more than $50 million in tickets that had pre-sold just for Saturday. The Beijing film industry appears to be in a collective holding pattern, waiting anxiously with the entire country to see how the next phase in the coronavirus crisis will unfold.