China to reopen movie theaters next week, with strings attached

Business & Technology

After an earlier false start, China is set to reopen movie theaters starting on July 20. They will be limited to 30% seating capacity, and half the number of screenings as usual.

After nearly 180 days of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, movies theaters in China have finally been given the official go-ahead to reopen starting next Monday.

In a notice (in Chinese) released by the China Film Administration (CFA) on July 16, the government’s movie watchdog said that it would allow theaters in low-risk areas for coronavirus infection to resume operations “in an orderly manner” beginning on July 20. Cinemas in middle- and high-risk regions — such as those in a few districts in Beijing, where a cluster of new coronavirus transmissions was discovered last month — were excluded from the opening plan.

The administration stressed that once a low-risk area is reclassified because of new cases, movie theaters in that region have to immediately shutter to help curb the spread of the virus.

The green light came at a time when thousands of movies theaters across China were struggling to stay afloat. Yet the industry is unlikely to see a quick and full recovery given a string of guidelines and safety protocols laid out in the notice.

As the Hollywood Reporter reported, the notice stipulates that those eligible to reopen need to implement “a 30% cap on seating capacity and a 50% reduction from the usual number of screenings held per day.” What’s more, theaters need to limit the length of each film screening to two hours, while customers are required to have their temperature checked at the door, wear face masks, and keep a distance of at least one meter (3.28 feet) from one another.

In terms of hygiene measures, the notice states that key areas such as ticket vending machines, bathrooms, and public seats should be disinfected no fewer than five times a day. Items frequently touched by customers, including armrests and 3D glasses, need to be wiped down after each use.

However, some services will remain unavailable, such as concessions and in-person ticket selling. Customers need to purchase tickets through online reservations using their real names.

Since the emergence of steady signs that the outbreak was in retreat, movie theaters in China have been anxiously waiting for the green light to reopen. But given the short notice, it’s unclear how many cinemas will have everything in order next Monday. In an interview (in Chinese) with Insightful Eyes 毒眸, an online blog focusing on China’s movie industry, a theater owner in Hebei Province said that after waves of furloughs and layoffs, he now only had six employees working for the venue. “There are six screens in my theater, approximately 900 seats. We’ll be severely understaffed if we decide to open next week,” he said.

Another major problem facing cinemas is what movies they will have to show customers. In March, when a few movie theaters were given the permission to reopen, China Film Group, the country’s dominant state-owned distributor, rolled out a plan to let theaters screen past blockbusters. But before copies of films were delivered, the film administration reversed the decision, ordering all movie theaters to close again. When talking to the blog, several theater owners in Henan and Shanxi provinces said that they had no movies to screen as of Friday.

That being the case, the notice was seen as a promising sign by most people in the country’s filmmaking community. Famous director Jiǎ Zhāngkē 贾樟柯, who has been calling for the authorities to take action to save the industry for months, was quick to respond to the news. “I immediately said good-bye to my neighbors and popcorn. I will pick up my old job and make a movie soon!” he wrote (in Chinese) on Weibo.

In January, China ordered around 10,000 movie theaters across the country to shut down in response to the pandemic. The closures have been a massive blow to China’s moviegoing business, causing an estimated revenue loss of 30 billion yuan ($3 billion), according to calculations by the National Film Administration. Wanda Film, China’s largest cinema chain operator, said earlier this week that it expected to report a net loss of between 1.4 and 1.5 million yuan ($214 and $228 million) in the first half of the year.