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Movie screens in China go dark amid coronavirus. Again.

Are movie theaters in China an unofficial indication of the country’s success at eradicating the COVID-19 outbreak? Per the Hollywood Reporter:

Over 600 movie theaters across China were given the green light to reopen their doors over the past week, but Beijing’s Film Bureau put out a notice late Friday ordering all theaters to go back into shutdown.

No official explanation for the sudden reversal was provided. Industry insiders instantly began speculating that the government was worried about a potential second wave of coronavirus infections.

The decision was another major blow to the already-fragile movie business in China. Back in January, China’s film regulators ordered nearly 70,000 screens in around 10,000 venues to shutter, while a slew of local film releases were postponed indefinitely. As of the end of February, analysts estimated that Chinese box offices lost roughly $2 billion over the first two month of this year.

Prior to the news of reshuttering, there was a ray of light for the industry. Last week, as the number of new infections showed signs of abating, about 500 cinemas across China — which were mostly in Xinjiang and other far-flung provinces such as Inner Mongolia and Qinghai — were given permission to reopen.

Earlier in the week, China Film Group, the country’s dominant state-owned distributor, unveiled a plan to let theaters to screen past blockbusters to entice audiences back into seats. The list included domestic hits such as Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth, as well as foreign titles such as the Harry Potter franchise and the Avengers movies.

On Thursday, local authorities in Shanghai announced that more than 200 movie theaters would resume operation over the weekend, making the city the first tier 1 metropolis to restart its moviegoing business. In addition to the announcement, the local government also imposed a number of strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including requiring customers to present their health QR codes, to have their temperatures checked, and to keep a safe distance between seats.

Given the steady, cautious steps taken by the authorities, the abrupt reshuttering struck many movie professionals and industry observers as a bad omen. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, an executive at a major movie theater firm said, “This second closure will not be a one- or two-week issue. They are going to be even more cautious when they attempt to reopen again — and this will set us back a long time.”

The sudden reversal of policy also fueled public concerns about a second wave of coronavirus infections. Yesterday, in order to slow the spike in imported cases, China introduced a temporary ban on all foreign visitors, even if they have visas or residence permits. Commenting on the latest shutdown, an internet user wrote (in Chinese), “This is a signal. The situation has become dire again. Be careful and vigilant.”

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Jiayun Feng

Jiayun was born in Shanghai, where she spent her first 20 years and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Fudan University. Interested in writing for a global audience, she attended the NYU Graduate School of Journalism for its Global & Joint Program Studies, which allowed her to pursue a journalism career along with her interest in international relations. She has previously interned for Sixth Tone and Shanghai Daily.

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