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China will begin reopening cinemas in “low-risk regions” from July 20, the China Film Administration (CFA) announced Thursday, ending nearly six months of closures that left thousands of theaters bankrupt.

“Cinemas in low-risk regions can resume business in an orderly manner on July 20, with the effective implementation of prevention and control measures. Mid- and high-risk regions must temporarily remain closed,” the administration said in a statement posted to its official website.

“Once low-risk regions become designated as mid- or high-risk regions, they must strictly implement epidemic prevention and control measures…[and] cinemas must close again in a timely fashion in accordance with requirements.”

The long-awaited green light comes, however, with caveats that may mean that profits continue to prove elusive for the hard-hit Chinese exhibition sector.

Attendance of each screening will be capped at 30%, the CFA said in a four-page document of specific guidelines and safety measures, and the overall number of screenings per venue must be reduced to “half their number in a normal period.” Furthermore, each film screening may not exceed two hours in length, it said — without providing further detail as to what this might mean for longer films.

Meanwhile, concessions — cinemas’ biggest profit driver  — will be banned.

“Film screening venues will not sell snacks and beverages, and eating and drinking in the screening rooms is prohibited,” it said.

Other indoor businesses such as restaurants or transportation resumed operations months ago in China, and currently do not face policy restrictions on their operating capacity.

The CFA said that cinemas will be required to follow the “precise and scientific implementation of prevention and control measures.”

All tickets must now be sold virtually through real-name registered online reservations, and procured via contactless methods, it said. Different parties unknown to each other should be sold seats more than a meter apart.

Public areas like lobbies, corridors and bathrooms should be disinfected no less than twice a day, while commonly touched areas like ticket vending machines, sales counters and public seats should be wiped down no less than five times a day. Armrests, 3D classes and other such frequently touched items should be disinfected after each use. Ventilation in screening halls must be improved.

Masks will be mandatory for both employees and customers, with temperatures taken for anyone entering the venue.

Employees returning to work from mid- and high-risk regions will be asked to quarantine, and to “reduce unnecessary going out and avoid frequenting crowded places.”

The CFA also described the precise bureaucratic mechanism by which reopenings will be monitored.

“Once each region’s local film department has received the local party committee and government’s approval for their plan to reopen cinemas, they should discuss with the local CDC how to reopen in accordance with the rules,” it explained. Ultimately, different regions’ plans for re-opening must be reported back up to the national-level CFA.

Unverified leaked documents and statements from insiders indicate that cinemas in Guangzhou, one of China’s top movie-going regions, may be among the first batch to reopen.

The problem now facing cinemas is what they will have to show viewers, when.

When a small portion of cinemas reopened briefly in March, business was dismal. Venues were unable to attract much of a crowd by offering stale local titles that most people had already seen. Fresh content will now be crucial to getting people through the door.
The first film to confirm its intentions to release theatrically in China was “The First Farewell,” a Xinjiang-set about three Uighur children which Variety called “an outstanding debut feature” from writer-director Wang Lina. Even before authorities had mentioned any timeline for reopening cinemas, the movie said earlier this month that it was “scheduled to screen the first day cinemas reopen.” It issued a new tagline aligned with its tale of sorrowful partings: “Let’s meet again after a long period of separation.”

Previously, a number of Hollywood films were set to hit Chinese cinemas to reel in post-COVID crowds. They included a 3D, 4K restoration of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” as well as “1917” and “Little Women,” which both began putting out new promotional material in May, apparently in anticipation of a theatrical run. All four films of the “Avengers” series, “Coco,” “Call of the Wild,” Oscar winner “Jojo Rabbit,” “Inception,” “Avatar” and “Interstellar” are other Western movies whose names have appeared as potential kickstarters for the Chinese box office.

Others like “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Sonic the Hedgehog,” and “Bad Boys for Life” are also already sitting in the holding tank, having been approved for earlier, cancelled Chinese theatrical releases.

Yet just because the doors are open doesn’t mean that the profits will flow. Confidence in a quick rebound at the box office appears in some quarters, at least, to be low.

On Wednesday, the $43 million-budgeted, effects-laden Chinese fantasy actioner “Double World” announced that it would forgo a theatrical debut in favor of premiering online on iQiyi and Netflix, where it will debut next weekend. The decision at least “provides us with a way to reach users and recoup our investment,” its producer Zhang Amu said.