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As China moves to reopen movie theaters, Disney CEO says ‘We’re a bunch of optimists’

Liú Yìfēi 刘亦菲 in Mulan. Image: Disney.

China is allowing movie theaters in some parts of the country to reopen, which may be good news for both the Chinese film industry and Hollywood.

Theaters will have to implement strict social distancing measures, with viewers having to sit at least a meter apart, wear masks, and encouraged to avoid touching surfaces. Seats and screening rooms will also have to be cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis. Although the government has given the go-ahead for cinemas to re-open, none have apparently done so yet as implementation of the social distancing and disinfection measures is likely to take some time. (For details on the government guidelines and problems in their implementation, see SupChina: China issues new guidelines to reopen movie theaters, hotels, and sports venues, but uncertainty remains.)

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a big toll on Chinese film studios and theaters, which have already lost more than $4 billion this year. Hollywood has also pulled several films from their initial release dates in China, including Wonder Woman 1984, Mulan and Black Widow.

In March China briefly tried restarting less than 5% of its theaters; box office revenue totaled less than $10 a day, and the theaters quickly closed again after an uptick in coronavirus infections from travelers returning from overseas.

If China succeeds in reopening its cinemas in the next two months, it will be good news for Disney. The American entertainment giant says it’s moving ahead with the global release of family blockbuster Mulan on July 22.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek told CNBC, “At Disney, we’re a bunch of optimists. I think that’s a very good release date for this title. You have to balance people’s anxieties about going out in public with the pent-up demand.”

Disney has not clarified if Mulan might come to Chinese screens earlier than July 22 if theaters in the country are open before then, or if the release date will be affected if movie theaters in the U.S. and other large markets are not yet operating normally.

Disney spent $200 million to make Mulan, and before the lockdown, was counting on ticket sales in China to help the movie break even. The film is based on an ancient Chinese legend about a young woman named Huā Mùlán 花木蘭 who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her father in the army.

Mulan has been one of the most talked about topics on Chinese social media platforms this week. The film’s director, Niki Caro, posted a short video of Liú Yìfēi’s 刘亦菲 audition for the title role on Instagram yesterday. The video has since gone viral with 460 million views on China’s microblogging platform Weibo under the hashtag “Liu Yifei’s Mulan audition video” (#刘亦菲试镜花木兰视频#), indicating excitement around the film’s release.

The soft reopening of cinemas in China, and movies like Mulan, will be a test of how willing audiences are to return to crowded theaters this summer, and determine whether Disney’s optimists have the fairytale ending they are hoping for.

Shannon Van Sant

Shannon Van Sant is a journalist and documentary filmmaker in New York City, and previously reported from Beijing for CBS News and PBS television.

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