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Wide range of emotions displayed as cinemas open doors nationwide

(Global Times)    09:13, July 21, 2020

Cinemas reopened in low-risk areas in the Chinese mainland on Monday after 170 days of shutdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The day was regarded as "historic" by many moviegoers and industry insiders, with people's emotions in the past six months finally being released as the first group of audiences stepped back into cinemas nationwide.

About 112,000 people have visited cinemas across the country on Monday with over 9,990 screenings, according to ticketing platform Maoyan. Observers described the opening as a brave victory in a new phase.

With box office pre-sales nationwide surpassing 3.2 million yuan ($458,000) as of press time, the first-day performance of China's film market in six months are not flamboyant, but shows people's resilience, past sacrifices, sorrow, jubilance and confidence for the future.

Historic moment

The first cinema reopened in China saw all 32 tickets sold out for the film A First Farewell released in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province, at 12 ammidnight Monday.

Anti-epidemic measures require that seating capacity must only be limited to 30 percent per showing. Audience members wearing masks took pictures with their mobile phones to record the remarkable moment in Chinese film history before the movie started with such an event not being observed before.

China Central TelevisionMedia outlets on Monday reported that at least 835 cinemas in more than 120 cities have screened films on Monday. Shanghai, Hangzhou and Changsha ranked in the top three, with 1,487, 768 and 543 screenings respectively.

Cinemas in some cities, including Beijing, were yet to reopen on Monday. A Beijing-based industry insider contacted by the Global Times said that Beijing's cinemas are expected to reopen within a week, and all their colleagues feel thrilled and inspired. Local media reported that some cinemas are preparing for the arrival of audiences, including disinfection, staff health checks, and a real-name online reservation system.

Beijing downgraded its emergency response level to level Ⅲ on Sunday, indicating that the resurgence has been completely contained in 40 days.

Moviegoers in Shanghai are excited to watch their first movie A First Farewell shown in the city's cinemas since January. Cao Zhaoqun, a Shanghai moviegoer told the Global Times on Monday that tickets sold out quickly, and the film deemed suitable for today's scene, underlining a reunion for all film-buffs and movie lovers.

"13 movies will be shown today and four of them have already sold out," Luo Jiajie, manager of Tianshan Cinema in Shanghai told the Global Times on Monday morning, noting that attendance is expected to reach 70 to 80 percent of the current capacity allowed.

"I'm very excited that we weren't totally forgotten," Luo said, noting that she woke up today full of positive energy.

Tianshan Cinema requires staff to wear masks and gloves, disinfect armrests and seats, and also ensure indoor ventilation. Before entering, the audience must have their temperatures checked, present health codes and register their personal information, local media reported.

Cai Xiaoxue, Deputy Director of the Market Department in the Chinese Culture Group whose cinemas cover 22 cities across China, told the Global Times that reopening cinemas is the first step for the film industry to recover.

The China Film Administration made an official announcement on July 16 that cinemas in low-risk regions will be allowed to reopen on July 20. It also stipulated that audiences can only book tickets online via real-name reservations, and cinemas must reserve empty seats for social distancing.

However, some media outlets reported that many practitioners reacted to the news with a mixture of calm and skepticism, as restoring the industry is not just as simple as opening the gates and switching on the power. 

Silver lining in the cloud 

A Beijing-based film industry insider surnamed Li expressed his concern to the Global Times Monday, saying reopening would be costly for small cinemas, even taking subsidies and preferential policies into account. "As hard as it was, I know companies are doing their best to avoid layoffs."

Since February, at least a dozen provincial-level regions have introduced multiple measures to help cinemas overcome difficulties including subsidies, tax reductions and exemptions, financial loans, relief of rental costs, and unemployment insurance. The Global Times learnt from an insider on Monday that Shanghai has allocated 18 million yuan for cinemas in the city.

Some cinema employees were laid off amid the outbreak, recruiting and training new staff, equipment maintenance and cinema disinfection all have high costs, said Li, noting that start-up preparation requires at least 500,000 yuan ($ 72,000), and the reality is that they cannot earn that much money or even make profit.

Li said that the suspension of selling drinks and snacks also causes losses, as such sales make up for about 10 percent of box office revenue.

Even some big foreign-invested firms in the industry are faced with the pressure of survival in the past six months. Surnamed Yang, a Shanghai-based employee with South Korea's largest multiplex chain, CGV, told the Global Times that her salary has been reduced by more than half during the lockdown period.

"It was difficult for some staffers who have to raise kids or pay rent with reduced salaries," Yang told the Global Times on Monday, adding that quite a few of her coworkers at the cinema have to find part-time jobs to earn their living.

Huang Wei, the vice president of Bona Film Group, China's leading entertainment firm, died after falling from a building in June. Some people suspect his death was related to the enormous losses the company had incurred due to cinema closures amid the epidemic.

Released by the China Film Association on May 27, a survey dubbed China's "cinema survival report" shows that the national box office totaled 2.238 billion yuan in Q1 this year, 88 percent lower than 2019. According to data from 187 cinemas, the average revenue of each cinema in Q1 was about 350,000 yuan, while the average operating cost was 1.2 million yuan.

By the end of May, nearly half of all cinemas were running low on cash, and 42 percent said they were at risk of closure, read the survey.

The services of cinemas are a warm-up for the future seeking balance amid the time of normalized epidemic prevention and control, Shi Chuan, deputy chairman of the Shanghai Film Association, told the Global Times on Monday.

Shi said the resumption should not be immediately over-judged by financial benefits as the whole film and theater market in China is just like "a person recovering from a serious illness starting to eat porridge again."

He said that the most significant goal of cinema resumption is to restore the confidence of audiences, the market, cinemas, and the producers during the epidemic. It is a staged victory, but the past six months depict the difficulties and struggles of people in the industry.

Although many observers believe that the chilly winter of film and cinema chains is almost over in China, Shi said the trend of cinema films will be U-shaped. "We cannot ignore the possibility of local outbreaks in the future, but if a vaccine is successfully developed and put on the market, we could see a significant recovery in the Spring Festival holiday .

Analysts said that the current arrangement offers more opportunities for small-cost domestic films like A First Farewell to make an appearance, as new blockbusters were in short supply during the epidemic.

Monday is also a memorable day for Chinese actor and director Dong Chengpeng, known as Da Peng, whose latest film The Reunions was shortlisted for the 23rd Shanghai International Film Festival set to kick off on July 25. All the seats of his latest movie exhibition were sold out as soon as the pre-sale started on 8am Monday.

Da Peng told the Global Times that the epidemic has forced the film industry to slow, putting projects under pressure from investors and time constraints. However, film's reunion with passionate audiences on Monday gives Da Peng more confidence.

"I watched a film in a cinema in Hainan today as a moviegoer… Hopefully, after the epidemic, all filmmakers will keep up their efforts to bring more audiences back to the cinema," he said. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Liang Jun, Bianji)

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