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China’s ‘Lost in Russia’ Switches to Unprecedented Online Release in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

Chinese film production and online group Huanxi Media has cancelled plans for the theatrical release of its blockbuster Chinese New Year film “Lost in Russia” and will release it online for free instead. The move is both a reaction to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has caused disruption and panic throughout China, and as the springboard for a new business relationship with online giant Bytedance, owner of wildly popular short video platform Tiktok.

Huanxi, which is partially owned by talent, including the film’s star, producer and director Xu Zheng, said in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that it had cancelled the minimum guarantee arrangement that it had struck with theatrical distributors. The deal, signed in November, had been conditional on the film enjoying a wide release on the first day of Chinese New Year. That is now not possible due to precautionary measures being belatedly taken in response to the virus outbreak which began in the now quarantined city of Wuhan.

Huanxi will now release “Lost in Russia” on its own Huanxi Premium streaming platform and, under a six month first phase deal, simultaneously allow Bytedance to release the film on its own Douyin and Toutiao platforms. The Huanxi and Bytedance platforms will help each other through cross-promotion and revenue sharing. Bytedance will pay Huanxi an initial $91 million (RMB630 million) for the privilege and be credited as co-producer.

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“The film will keep the appointment to meet everyone on Jan. 25, but the meeting point has changed to your cellphone and television, instead of the cinema,” Huanxi said in a posting on Jinri Toutiao.

It is not clear whether “Lost in Russia,” a comedy about an overbearing Chinese mother and her adult son, and the third film in the “Lost in” franchise that began in 2012, will ever see a theatrical release. Huanxi has retained the theatrical rights and could release the film later in the year. But the fast-evolving nationwide responses to the coronavirus outbreak make the chances of that happening difficult to calculate. Under the theatrical minimum guarantee deal with Hengdian Film, Huanxi had expected the film to earn gross box office revenues of RMB2.4 billion ($346 million).

Huanxi and Bytedance announced a second phase deal that follows on from the first and runs until the end of 2022. That sees the pair launch a new online cinema channel and agree to co-invest and co-produce a slate of film and TV content. Details of the second deal were scarcer.

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