×

Hours after municipal authorities in Shanghai gave more than 200 cinemas the greenlight to re-open Saturday, national-level Chinese authorities on Friday ordered all theaters throughout the country shut again due to concerns over continued coronavirus risks.

Around 500 theaters across China had attempted to re-open in the last week, but seen little financial benefit from doing so, with screenings averaging less than a person a day and a national daily box office intake in the low thousands of dollars.

They had only re-opened their doors after receiving direct authorization from their local government bodies, who verified that they were following mandated health procedures.

But now, China’s national film bureau has ordered them all shut again, without saying exactly why or when they might hope to re-open.

The bureau hasn’t issued a direct statement itself; instead, the news of its directive came out obliquely via reports of its “urgent orders” to the Jiangsu provincial film bureau that “all theaters are temporarily not to resume business, and those that have should stop immediately,” said the local Yangtze Evening News.

Some believe the sudden reversal of policy may be related to the fact that a new patient was diagnosed yesterday with coronavirus via localized transmission rather than exposure to overseas cases in Zhejiang province, which borders uber-populous Shanghai and Jiangsu province.

China has been taking drastic measures to stem the number of “imported” coronavirus cases coming into the country, which now account for almost all of their newly reported patients.

On Thursday, it announced a temporary ban on all foreigners entering the country, even if they have valid visas or residence permits. It had previously limited all foreign and domestic airlines to just one flight at no more than 75% capacity per week into the country. In late February, Beijing began mandating that anyone returning to the capital undergo a costly 14-day government-run quarantine at their own expense.

The contradicting orders about cinema operations from different levels of government recall a drastic late February incident in the disease’s epicentre of Wuhan. Municipal authorities at first said they would ease quarantine restrictions on the 11 million people locked down there by allowing those who appeared healthy to leave the city. However, they then canceled the policy mere hours later, saying it had been an “invalid” decision made without higher authorization.

“Having received notice from the higher level departments, movie theaters will temporarily not resume operations on March 28,” said a joint statement from national theater chains Broadway Cinemas, Cinema Palace and Premiere Cinemas Friday. Those who have bought tickets already will be able to receive refunds within seven business days, it said, apologizing for the inconvenience.

The about-face comes the day after Shanghai municipal authorities announced they planned to re-open 205 of the city’s 380 or so cinemas this weekend, making it the first tier-one major metropolis to bring theaters back online. It had planned to issue government ticket subsidies of up to $846,000 (RMB6 million) over the course of the next month to help get audiences back into the cinemas.

It also hits the same day that Hubei province downgraded Wuhan’s risk status from “high” to “moderate” as it prepares to lift lockdown measures there on April 8, with provincial health authorities stating Friday that transmission has been “basically stopped.”

A cinema practitioner tells Variety he believes the new orders imply that going forward, theaters will no longer be opening in piecemeal batches across the country according to local regulations. Instead, they will likely re-open all at once under a “one size fits all” model, with their operations more uniformly regulated and controlled by the central authorities.

Just as the national film bureau was ordering cinemas to shut, China’s state-run TV channel CCTV6 announced Friday that it would begin streaming all three “Lord of the Rings” films successively starting Monday.

The trilogy was long expected to be included among the titles selected by state-run distributor China Film Group to revive the dormant exhibition sector, along with previously confirmed Hollywood blockbusters “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” all four “Avengers” franchise films, and “Coco,” among others. The fact that the trilogy will now be released online rather than held for future theatrical release is a further indication that this shutdown may continue for quite some time yet.

The second of three waves of the brutal 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was its deadliest. Chinese authorities and high-level experts have taken pains to reassure the public there that there will likely not be a second wave of coronavirus infections, saying that the country has taken sufficient measures domestically to contain the disease as long as it doesn’t come in via travellers from outside, harder hit regions.

But new data from several quarantine facilities in Wuhan housing supposedly recovered patients for further observation is showing that around 5-10% of them are now once again testing positive for infection a second time, according to a Friday NPR report.

Major live entertainment venues expected to imminently resume operations have also just announced continued closures, further signalling that Chinese authorities remain wary to let large groups congregate just yet.

A number of China’s top national-level performance halls said on Thursday and Friday that they will be cancelling or postponing their entire April programs and remain shut for the foreseeable future.

These include, among others, the Shanghai Grand Theater, Shaanxi Grand Theater, and Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts, which said the decision was made in order to “conscientiously safeguard the health and safety of the greater public.” Certain performances have been rescheduled for as far in the future as late August.

Online, the news of continued cinema closures was met with a mix of patriotic acceptance, as well as bewilderment and snark.

“If the country doesn’t support the film industry soon, Chinese film will regress back to the previous century,” wrote one Weibo social media commenter. Four other users replied simultaneously below with a version of the same joke: “That could be a good thing — there were many more good Chinese films then!”

Sha Dan, deputy director of business development at the Beijing-based China Film Archive, wrote on his Weibo: “What we need now is acceptance and understanding! Facing the epidemic, we definitely cannot be careless! Cinema industry brothers, let’s bear it a little longer!”

Li Yang, a film professor at China’s prestigious Peking University, quipped darkly in a reply that the Archive was already “practically bankrupt — there’s no longer anything it can’t bear.”