‘Green Book,’ ‘Capernaum’ Among Popular Movies Expected To Kickstart Chinese Cinema Reopenings

Fares Sokhon

China’s main state-owned distributor plans to issue eleven films, from which cinemas will keep all income, in order to get the country’s exhibition sector back on its feet after long closures due to coronavirus, it has said.

China Film Group listed a first batch of five selected titles on Tuesday in a statement addressed to cinema operators and managers nation-wide.

They include one foreign film —  Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s 2018 Cannes Jury Prize-winner “Capernaum” — and four Chinese blockbusters: Peter Chan’s 2013 “American Dreams in China,” 2015’s “Wolf Totem,” directed by France’s Jean-Jacques Annaud, and two of the country’s highest grossing films of all time, the patriotic titles “Wolf Warrior 2” and sci-fi adventure “The Wandering Earth.”

These titles will be available to re-opened cinemas from Friday, March 20, Chinese ticketing platforms now show.

Variety viewed screenshots detailing the contents of hard drives shipped Thursday between China’s state-run distributors and cinemas that list a second batch of six films. They consist of three Chinese films and three Hollywood ones with Chinese investment from Alibaba Pictures.

The U.S. films are Oscar-winning “Green Book,” which grossed in $71 million in China, Amblin Partners’ Dennis Quaid-starring “A Dog’s Purpose” and its sequel, “A Dog’s Journey,” which earned $88.2 million and $29 million in the country, respectively.

The Chinese films are the hit youth melodrama “Better Days,” which grossed $218 million last fall, the 2015 comedy “Goodbye Mr. Loser,” which grossed more than $200 million, and Light Chaser Animation’s “White Snake,” one of the country’s more successful homegrown animations, which earned $64 million early last year.

The producers and distributors of all the selected Chinese titles have agreed to forgo their typical 43% cut of the box office and donate it entirely to the country’s struggling cinemas. (Hollywood films typically imported on revenue sharing terms normally earn 25% of gross revenue.)

“These films will be distributed in a charity model,” China Film Group said in its Tuesday statement about the first batch, with cinemas taking 100% of the profits.

“We recommend that cinemas consider doing charitable, free screenings or low-cost screenings to benefit viewers” and get people back in the door, CFG said, before taking pains to emphasize that re-opened cinemas must stick to strict disinfection and hygiene procedures to keep the virus at bay.

“Our film was selected by the government to be re-released to support the theater chains which have been financially devastated by the epidemic,” a spokesman for Road Pictures, distributor of “Capernaum” told Variety. “Theaters will retain 100% of the revenue from these re-releases.”

The tear-jerking tale about the travails of a street-hardened Lebanese boy became a breakout hit when it reached Chinese cinemas last April, earning $54.3 million.

With the Chinese public still uncertain about whether and when to venture back into crowded places such as cinemas, none of the Chinese-made tentpole movies which had their planned Chinese New Year releases are yet willing to commit to a post-virus release date.

Re-releasing well-loved older titles, however, minimizes financial risk and, benefiting from name recognition, does not require audiences to experiment with untried content.

Other waves of films will be announced later. One exhibition sector employee told Variety that Japanese animation films may make future lists.

Classic and older titles have found surprising box office success in the Middle Kingdom, where many were never accorded a theatrical release when they first came out. Recently, these have included Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” which grossed $69 million last summer, 18 years after its first release, as well as two 1998 pictures: Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Legend of 1900,” which made $20.5 million in November, and Oscar-winner “Life is Beautiful,” which earned $8.24 million in just 22 days in January before coronavirus shut the cinemas down.

On Thursday, Warner Bros. announced that a 3D, 4K restoration of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will soon hit China in wide release. The title earned $8 million in the country when it was first released in 2002 — a time when China had a fraction of its current number of screens — but the franchise has an enthusiastic fanbase in the country. It is listed on ticketing apps as debuting April 30, just in time for the busy May 1 Labor Day holiday.

The topic of what exactly will hit Chinese cinemas and when appears to be slightly sensitive to Chinese authorities at the moment, with even highly cautious state-run outlets deleting certain information that might have ultimately been deemed premature.

One film bureau insider set one of his widely shared commentaries on Weibo to private, explaining: “[Officials] say that the epidemic isn’t over yet. In order to avoid unnecessary trouble, it’s not time yet to speak out at such a grand scale.”

Nevertheless, some information about what else may be in store for the world’s second-largest film market has been gaining traction online.

A bundle of other Hollywood films that have already Chinese passed censorship and been approved for screening are likely to be re-scheduled, many of which were pulled from their February debuts as cinemas shuttered. These include “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Dolittle,” “1917,” “Marriage Story,” “Little Women,” “Bad Boys for Life” and “Ford V. Ferrari.”

It has yet to be officially confirmed, but Disney’s “Call of the Wild” and Oscar-winning “Jojo Rabbit” — which saw its originally scheduled February China release cancelled due to the coronavirus — may receive a limited release on April 4 from China’s National Arthouse Alliance of Cinemas, social media reports said Thursday.

An online news outlet affiliated with the state-run Chengdu Daily has said that streaming giant iQIYI has provided some cinemas with two films on hard drives: its first original animated title “Spycies,” with a decryption key that expires May 10, and shark survival horror film “Uncaged: 47 Meters Down,” whose key expires April 9. Cinemas currently attempting to slowly re-open in Xinjiang have already programmed “Spycies” as one of their few available titles.

Last Friday, the government-run film website 1905 Film put out an article on its official site that said China Film was preparing a screening series called “Unforgettable Memories: Screenings of Chinese and Foreign Classic Films,” indicating that classics would also be among the first titles to hit newly re-opened theaters.

It noted that “a large number of classic movies were inputted as having received approval codes in the national movie ticketing information management system,” which allows cinemas to schedule them in their systems for pre-sales. Among them were Chinese titles from the late 1980s such as “The Price of Frenzy” and “The Night Robbery.” The article was quickly deleted that same day — a frequent occurrence on China’s highly censored Internet for information that might be deemed sensitive or not yet suitable for release to the public.