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China's film industry will struggle to recover from coronavirus shutdown

Screens have been dark since Lunar New Year while people watch pirated versions

| China
Liu Yifei at the premiere for Mulan in Los Angeles on March 9: The growing impact of coronavirus will likely hurt Disney's box office ambition.   © Reuters

Disney has poured $200 million into its live-action remake of Mulan, about a young Chinese woman who joins the army in her father's place, in hopes of wooing Chinese moviegoers. The film features an all-Asian cast and Disney even cut a romantic scene for the local audience. But the growing impact of coronavirus will likely trample Disney's box office ambition, just as it is trampling China's.

After a monthlong shutdown, Chinese authorities have announced guidelines for movie theaters and film studios to resume business operations. However, the film industry has shown minimal reaction, largely waiting for the storm to pass and contemplating its next move.

All screenings, including at least those of 12 Hollywood titles, have been canceled since Lunar New Year in late January, the most profitable period for Chinese cinema operators. Box office revenue in the first eight weeks of 2020 fell more than 80% from the year before, according to data provider Wind.

Despite the notice to resume work, the cinema industry's recovery will be dreadfully slow. Movie theaters first need to submit an epidemic prevention plan for review. If approved, the theaters must sell nonadjacent tickets in every other row and register each customer's detailed personal identification. Moviegoers will need to wear a face mask at all times.

As long as coronavirus fears remain high, customers will feel discouraged from risking their safety to watch a movie in a confined public space.

Wanda Cinemas, China's largest theater operator, has been selling discounted popcorn and movie coupons online to stay afloat but has yet to confirm any reopening plans. In Taiwan and South Korea, where it remains business as usual in most cities, theatrical admissions have already declined sharply due to the health scare.

A staff member carrying sanitizing equipment walks past a closed cinema in Beijing on Feb. 3: the industry's recovery will be dreadfully slow.   © Reuters

Even if Chinese movie theaters were to reopen now, the huge backlog of stale films would not draw audiences, especially given China's piracy problem. Despite steady box office growth, China's film distributors have long been wrestling with online piracy, estimating a $9.8 billion revenue loss by 2022. By comparison, total ticket sales last year were $9.2 billion.

Among the canceled holiday screenings were Oscar-winning films such as Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit, which millions of avid internet users in China have probably watched from the comfort of their homes during this long quarantine period.

Film production is at a halt nationwide. Hengdian Studios, where 70% of Chinese films and TV shows are shot, has reopened for work since mid-February. But film productions are still suspended due to tough restrictions permitting only film crews with under 50 people. All crew members and actors must pass an online exam about the coronavirus with a perfect score in order to obtain approval.

Migrant workers who had gone home to high-risk regions for the New Year holidays are prohibited from returning to the studios until further notice.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Hengdian had over 6,000 crew members at once and many have remained on site with a small stipend. Film producers and Hengdian are facing a dilemma: resuming full-scale productions hastily would risk turning the studios into a hotbed of infections, but delaying work further burns more cash and time every day.

Beijing Enlight Media, China's top film producer and distributor, told local media that it had no plans to reschedule postponed releases or resume filming yet. Most of its films scheduled for 2020 wrapped shooting last year and are now in postproduction, and the company can use this downtime to refine its idea generation and screenwriting processes.

While theater screens stay blank and production crews remain uncertain of their fate, two film distributors have sold their movies, Lost in Russia and Enter the Fat Dragon, to online platforms.

Given the uncertainties of the ongoing epidemic, many online consumers welcomed the emergency switch from a theatrical release to streaming platforms. Yet major cinema chains believed Lost in Russia was a potential blockbuster and criticized the move as a betrayal, threatening to boycott the producers.

The existential threat to the Chinese cinema industry is not streaming services or even the coronavirus, but the diminishing quality and quantity of films. Chinese streaming platforms barely invest money in film content like Netflix does; they prefer long drama series because even low budgets can yield hours of content to retain their audience and accommodate more ads.

For the cinema industry, it will require much more to bounce back. If the virus persists for months, surviving film exhibitors will face changing consumer habits and a lack of supply from the prolonged production halt. China's annual screening quota of only 34 imported titles, in addition to stricter censorship, will exacerbate the problem of scarcity, not to mention uncurbed piracy.

In the long run, Chinese filmmakers and international producers might seek to increase coproductions, which would bypass the quota and create easier access for foreign films.

Meanwhile, China's global box office dominance has to wait. The Chinese film industry will be praying for a government bailout, or many screens may go dark for good.

Daphne K. Lee is a journalist based in Taipei and New York City. She mainly writes about human rights, film and culture. Her work has appeared in Goldthread, Popula and The News Lens.

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