Chinese government says no to ‘mobile theaters’

Business & Technology

Movies available on Smart Cinema

On May 9, Beijing Digiwork Film Co. announced it was launching Smart Cinema, a app that would allow users to stream movies playing in China’s theaters. However, the company’s plans to create a “mobile theater” (移动院线 yídòng yuàn xiàn) might soon be cut short as China’s media regulators have reportedly expressed opposition toward the product.

China’s film bureau has stated it has never officially approved of Smart Cinema or any other “mobile theater” apps. Representatives from the State Administration of Radio and Television also added that Beijing Digiwork Film had not obtained the online audiovisual programming license required for it to legally stream any online content, including movies. Without sanctioning from China’s media regulators, it seems unlikely that Smart Cinema will be able to survive for long.

At the product launch, Beijing Digiwork Film had described the app as a product that would tap into the still largely untapped potential of China’s movie market. Although China is currently the world’s second-largest film market, according to Beijing Digiwork Film, 85 percent of China’s population have never set foot in a movie theater because of the scarcity of theaters in China’s poorer, rural regions. An app like Smart Cinema, the company argues, would serve the users in regions without a movie theater by offering the option of streaming movies online. To stream each movie, the user would pay a reduced price — close to $4 per movie — and the proceeds would be accounted into China’s theatrical box office revenues.

Beijing Digiwork Film also contended that its app would help diversify China’s movie scene, which is currently being dominated by big-budget local films and Hollywood fare. The company believed that Smart Cinema would serve as an ideal platform for smaller films that lack the financial resources or clout to leverage movie theaters for more screenings. At the time of its launch, movies like the romantic comedy Dude’s Manual (脱单告急 tuō dān gàojí) and Japanese drama The Third Murder (第三度嫌疑人 dì sān dù xiányí rén) were among the titles available for streaming on the app.

There are critics that believe that even without opposition from China’s media regulator, Smart Cinema would have likely failed to deliver on its ambitious vision. Its pricing of $4 per movie would have been too steep a price for the audience it purports to serve, people living in remote and less affluent regions of China. Furthermore, detractors have pointed out that the movies that Beijing Digiwork Film claims are overlooked and unable to secure screenings in movie theaters are more often movies of dubious quality. With such a paltry offering, it would have been unlikely for Smart Cinema to compete with China’s other streaming giants such as iQiyi and Youku.