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A Stellar Slate of Local Films May Help China’s Pandemic-Plagued Box Office Rebound Over the Lunar New Year

Chinese Film Box Office
Marcos Chin for Variety

This month’s Chinese New Year holidays will be a litmus test for the strength of China’s film industry recovery following a period of unprecedented turmoil.

This time last year, China’s wrecked Spring Festival celebrations were emblematic of the coronavirus crisis that had dramatically engulfed the world’s most populous nation and was soon to become a global pandemic. Emergency hospitals were being hastily erected in Wuhan, lockdowns had spread nationwide and businesses had little idea when they would reopen.

For China’s cinemas, the annual 10-day holiday — which shifts between January and February depending on the year — is usually an unparalleled boom time that accounts for 10%-15% of annual gross revenues. Holiday box office in 2019 hit record levels of RMB5.8 billion ($892 million), according to ticketing agency Maoyan. But in 2020, it was zero.

Since January, China’s state media has been carefully managing expectations downward, with reports quoting forecasts of festival period box office at RMB4.5 billion, which would represent a 22% decline on 2019. Resurgent COVID-19 hot spots are crimping cinema seating capacity in a handful of northern provinces, Beijing cinemas must cut seating to 50% for the peak week, and streamer iQIYI will temporarily offer free access to its subscription tiers in affected areas.

But with releases locked and tickets now finally available, there’s a more upbeat tone to the box office discussion: Audiences forked over $16 million in advance bookings within 28 hours of New Year tickets going on sale on Jan. 29.

“Our in-house team believes we can get to 90% of the 2019 [holiday] total” over the current festival period, says Jimmy Wu, CEO of Lumiere Pavilions, a high-end boutique chain with 40 cinemas and 353 screens, including one new complex in Nanjing that will debut just in time for Spring Festival.

Robert Mitchell, director of theatrical insights at box office analysis firm Gower Street Analytics, is also bullish on the upcoming prospects: “It is conceivable that CNY 2021 could match or outperform CNY 2019. What [October holiday period] Golden Week showed was that Chinese audiences have confidence in coming out for strong content,” he says.  “I would expect to see that reflected again for the Feb. 12 play week this year.”

Rance Pow, of China specialty exhibition and distribution consultancy Artisan Gateway, predicts a trend of continued recovery. He notes that the January 2021 box office weighed in at RMB3.3 billion, almost 99% of the January 2019 total.

“Average ticket prices will be up this Chinese New Year to about RMB50 [$7.69], an increase of 11.9% compared to the 2019 holiday,” says Pow.

A senior executive at one of China’s biggest private sector studios, who was not authorized to speak to foreign media, says that there are many reasons to be optimistic. “First, the direct effect of coronavirus will be limited as the second outbreak is small,” the exec says. “Second, the lineup of films is spectacular. And the government’s advice to people not to travel may help cinemas, especially in the big metropolises.”

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Liu Haoran is back in action in “Detective Chinatown 3,” which figures to do huge business over the Chinese New Year. Courtesy of WanDa Pictures

The lineup of films on offer is indeed impressive, comprising tentpole contenders from a wide range of genres and sources. Among them: “The Yin Yang Master,” a video game adaptation; “Boonie Bears: The Wild Life,” the latest installment in a long-running animation franchise; “Hi Mom,” a time-travel comedy starring comedians Jia Ling and Shen Teng; and “A Writer’s Odyssey,” a fantasy-action novel adaptation starring Yang Mi and produced by Ning Hao. Also debuting: “End Game,” a comedy drama with superstar Andy Lau playing opposite comedian Xiao Yang, and “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” from Light Chaser Animation, the studio behind 2019 animated hit “White Snake.”

The title to beat, however, is “Detective Chinatown 3,” the latest episode in Wanda Pictures’ caper comedy franchise starring veterans Liu Haoran and Wang Baoqiang.

The film was one of the casualties of the sudden lockdown that wiped out last year’s festival bonanza. While some of its erstwhile competitors opted to go straight to streaming or target the less crowded December 2020 window, “Detective Chinatown” held out for the same slot this year — and in the first three days of ticketing, it accounted for 73% (RMB131 million) of advance bookings nationwide (RMB180 million), suggesting that its appeal has not dimmed.

Some commentators claim to have seen the hand of the National Film Administration as the architect behind the diverse lineup. Others insist that competition is fierce and the season is as overcrowded as usual, a result of robust interstudio competition.

Indeed, nearly all major studios — Wanda Pictures, Alibaba, Huayi Brothers, Bona Film Group, Enlight Pictures and UEP — are represented, and most have teamed up with ticketing (Maoyan or Taopiaopiao) or short-form video platforms (Bilibili) to further juice their marketing efforts.

“The cost of P&A during Chinese New Year is too expensive for any distributor to release anything less than their strongest title,” says the studio executive. “With the possible exception of ‘Detective Chinatown 3,’ all the other films will be holding their breath through the 10-day period, trying to pick up more screens and hoping that word-of-mouth lasts until the last day of the season.”

The government’s restrictions on inter-province travel also may benefit cinemas. “The national travel advisory puts an unusual emphasis on Tier 1 and 2 cities, because many people will not be able to travel back to their families in the countryside,” says Imax China CEO Edwin Tan. In pre-COVID years, China’s annual return home was described as the world’s largest scheduled migration. This year, instead of returning to their roots, people may be searching for entertainment options in the big cities. “Moreover, there is no international travel. So we will see what the full force of 1.3 billion people can do.”

Tan argues that Imax is already one of the biggest beneficiaries of audiences’ return to cinemas, which has ramped up since doors reopened in mid-July: “Now, post-COVID, we see people looking for a differentiated and immersive experience, and in the first week of January, we [were] tracking maybe three times higher than the same period last year.”

Tan’s cause is aided by the fact that two of the big seven films have some element of Imax DNA. “Detective Chinatown 3” was shot entirely with Imax cameras; “A Writer’s Odyssey was filmed in Imax via the company’s camera certification program, and includes more than one hour of Imax expanded-aspect-ratio content; animated “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” is also set to play in some of mainland China’s 700 Imax screens.

A handful of other potential problems have seemingly failed to dent exhibitors’ growing sense of optimism.

In most parts of the nation, restricted seating capacity has been locked at 75% since late September, and cinema operators have learned to live with it. Without any specific social distance regulations, many cinemas have simply left the front two rows in an auditorium unsold.

China’s cinema operators were unusually vocal this time last year when franchise comedy film “Lost in Russia” hurriedly ditched its theatrical release in favor of an online debut with TikTok owner ByteDance. But since that flurry of angst, straight-to-streaming and compressed theatrical windows haven’t been an issue.

“We don’t see streaming as a significant [threat] at this time,” says Artisan Gateway’s Pow. “‘The Legend of Shaolin Temple,’ directed by Stanley Tong and starring Wang Baoqiang, is perhaps the most significant title to debut online during CNY,” he says, noting that Tencent and iQIYI raised membership fees in November.

“Chinese New Year being particularly crowded [reflects] the industry’s belief that theatrical is still key to the success of a big-budget film,” adds Pow.