How the Wuhan Coronavirus Infected the Chinese Film Industry

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Just days ago, no one would have predicted that China’s most lucrative film-going season was about to be derailed by the escalating epidemic of a novel coronavirus that is now rapidly spreading through the country and beyond.

Variety takes a look at how the box office in the world’s second largest film market has been overturned by a public health crisis that has made gathering in enclosed cinema spaces a health risk.

Pre-Sales and Promotion

Earlier this week, it seemed to be business as usual for the Spring Festival holiday release window. Production teams collectively spent a reported $144 million (RMB1 billion) on publicity for the seven blockbusters scheduled to release this Friday and Saturday, the eve and New Year’s Day of the new lunar year of the rat. The holiday is a time for family gatherings, when millions who’ve saved up all year take one of their few vacations, and head back to their hometowns. It is the largest annual human migration in the world.

It seemed that the biggest setback would be a marketing blow to Peter Chan’s volleyball drama “Leap,” which suddenly changed its Chinese title from “Chinese Women’s Volleyball” to “Win the Championship” the day before pre-sales began.

The new name, unknown to viewers bombarded with posters and materials for the other, is the same as the short made by rival director Xu Zheng that was included in the widely viewed propaganda film “My People, My Country,” and has caused confusion. Chan’s title change decision appears to have been a way to avoid fallout from dissatisfaction within the sports community of how the women’s team is portrayed, rather than government censorship.

Pre-sales for the seven films had already reached a reported $67.5 million (RMB468 million) by Thursday morning. “Detective Chinatown 3” had pulled ahead as the front-runner, setting a new pre-sale record by selling more than $14 million (RMB100 million) worth of tickets in just 23 hours.

Monday: Concern Mounts 

By Jan. 20, concerns ramp up about the spread of the coronavirus due to mass travel ahead of Chinese New Year, as the death toll and infection tally mounts. Chinese authorities report three deaths and more than 200 cases in the country and confirm that the disease can in fact spread through human-to-human transmission. Since the first case outside of China was discovered on Jan. 13, the virus has spread to Thailand, Japan and South Korea. On Jan. 21, the first reported case is found in the U.S., in Seattle.

Ticket sales in Wuhan were mounting swimmingly before Sunday (Jan. 19), accounting for around 2% of the national box office, on average. But from Sunday onwards, ticket sales rapidly declined, dropping from 2.2% of the national total to 0.5% in the space of three days. From Monday, film company shares begin to fall, including those for Wanda Film and China Film.

On Wednesday (Jan. 22), China’s major ticketing platforms Maoyan and Tao Piaopiao put out official statements announcing unconditional refunds for any tickets bought in Wuhan.

The same day, Chinese authorities announce a quarantine for the entire city of Wuhan and its 11 million residents, effective from the next day. Travel restrictions are planned to shut down public transit out of the city. Chaos ensues as residents fight to get out of the metropolis before lock down sets in Thursday morning at 10AM local time, with Chinese reports estimating that some 300,000 fled.

Thursday: Box Office Meltdown

By Thursday (Jan. 23) morning, the hashtag “Why don’t the spring festival films change their release dates?” is a top trending item on Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent. Production teams are faced with a lose-lose decision: risk angering the public by keeping their film in the line-up, or pull out and lose millions in P&A.

Official film Weibo accounts start to slash promotional material and instead boost posts cheering for “frontline medical workers.” Then, in quick succession, all seven issue statements that they are formally withdrawing their titles. No future release dates have been announced.

Animations “Boonie Bears: The Wild Life” and “Jiang Ziya” pulled out first. “Now that the epidemic is happening, we must stand impregnably united, and focus on the disease prevention and saving lives,” the “Jiang Ziya” promo site said. “We salute those working on the front lines of the epidemic and apologize to theater workers nationwide.”

The other titles swiftly follow. “Movies are just a part of life; life and safety are more important, since ‘movies are short and life is long,'” said the team behind “Leap.” It said it was pulling out after “careful consideration of the risk of disease transmission in a confined space.”

Lam’s “The Rescue” was on-brand and adopting the most rousing tone, writing: “At the moment, many medical and rescue personnel are sticking to their posts, stepping forward bravely at the key moment of danger and disaster! The movie ‘The Rescue’ is about exactly this kind of spirit. Let us as millions, all of one mind, with unshakeably unity, win the battle of preventing an epidemic!”

“Lost in Russia” director Xu Zheng wrote a post expressing his gratitude to Hengdian Film, his producer Huanxi Media, and the marketing team, whose early work has been washed away. “All this is less important than eliminating the hidden dangers of the disease!”

Ticketing platforms Maoyan and Tao Piaopiao now promise to refund all tickets without question, a process that may take up to a week. Cinema chains say they have been overwhelmed with calls from patrons asking for refunds.

Cinemas in Wuhan and other nearby locked-down cities have been entirely shut down, and authorities have issued a mandatory face mask policy there for public spaces. Cinemas elsewhere remain operational for the moment, advertising that they have boosted disinfection measures and ventilation for theaters.

Large-scale cultural activities like temple fairs have been cancelled, and cultural institutions such as museums have slashed activities to reduce visitor tallies. The Forbidden City in Beijing will be shuttered from Saturday.

Over the course of the day, China has locked down some 20 million people in Wuhan and neighboring cities by indefinitely banning planes and trains. The death toll has risen to at least 17, with some 517 affected. The virus has now been detected in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the U.S. and U.K. The WHO is currently mulling whether to declare the epidemic a global health emergency.

On Thursday – the last chance for business before a recess of five full trading days for the spring festival holiday – shares of a number of major film companies plummeted. Wanda Film closed almost 7% lower after falling 20% over the previous five trading days, and China Film closed nearly 5% lower, down 17% over the past five trading days.