Coronavirus: China reopens hundreds of cinemas as virus outbreak slows, but is anybody going?

Amanda Lee

Cinemas in many Chinese cities began reopening last week after a weeks-long shutdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, but dismal box office takings highlighted just how far the consumer economy has to go before returning to normal.

A total of 495 cinemas, or 4.4 per cent of China’s total, had opened by Tuesday, but they attracted only 1,003 cinema-goers – an average of about two people per cinema per day – according to statistics from Maoyan Entertainment, a firm monitoring nationwide box revenues.

The busiest cinema on was in Xinjiang autonomous region where one operator attracted 24 cinema-goers for the day across six movies.

The poor nationwide box office revenues, which stood at 26,000 yuan (US$3,676) for Tuesday, underscored the difficulties facing Beijing as it tries to get the economy back up and running, despite hopes that the services sector would rebound sharply when the pandemic was under control.

China’s movie industry has boomed in the past decade and is a poster child for the country’s consumer spending power. Annual box office revenues rose 5.4 per cent in 2019 to 64.3 billion yuan (US$9 billion) – more than 10 times the 6.2 billion yuan that was notched up in 2009.

The coronavirus, however, forced the closure of cinemas across the country on January 24, a day before the Lunar New Year holiday period when Chinese typically spend large amounts on shopping and dining.

Box office sales on January 25 this year were just 1.81 million yuan (US$256,000), compared to 1.46 billion yuan (US$206 million) on the same day in 2018.

On Tuesday, only 8 cinemas had opened in Shanghai – about 2 per cent of the total in the financial hub. Guandong province in southern China had only 35 cinemas operating.

China has recently declared it has brought the coronavirus outbreak under control and lifted some of the draconian restrictions that locked down entire cities to prevent the spread of the virus.

But few people appear willing to risk sitting in a cinema, and some operators seem just as reluctant to open to the public.

Piic Chen, a second-year college student from Xiamen, a city in Fujian province, said she had no plans to leave her house to watch a movie.

“I want reassurance from the government that it is safe,” said Chen, who has been streaming movies and television dramas online instead. “Right now I am still a bit timid.”

I want reassurance from the government that it is safe. Right now I am still a bit timid

ACE Art Studios, which operates cinemas across China, said it was too early to resume business.

“Under the current circumstances, I will not consider reopening,” one of the company’s founding partners, Zhang Xiaobing, wrote in Shanghai-based Jiemian News on Monday.

“Only when it’s safe, then you will want to find comfort and enjoy yourselves.”

Jiangsu province has said cinemas can apply to reopen under certain conditions, including selling tickets for seats on alternate rows and ensuring visitors prove they have not travelled out of town recently.

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