China’s Cinema Operators Lament As Top Government Body Pushes Prolonged Closures

China ’s top administrative body has officially “recommended” that cinemas and other entertainment venues remain closed for the foreseeable future due to coronavirus concerns. That spells continued trouble for Chinese cinemas, even as other business sectors get back to work. China’s cabinet, the State Council, singled out enclosed entertainment venues like cinemas in a new announcement of recommendations for nation-wide coronavirus prevention measures posted to its official website last week.

The guidelines have been met with dismay by local film professionals, a number of whom now fear that cinemas likely won’t reopen en masse until June or July.

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“Given that the outbreak overseas is accelerating and spreading and the pressure of imported cases into China continues to grow, we must speed up the process of returning to production and daily life” through the “normalization” of continued epidemic control measures, the State Council said.

Yet though the country must “actively and in an orderly fashion promote the resumption of work and production,” it’s still too soon to reboot much of the entertainment sector, it continued.

For “enclosed entertainment and leisure venues” in Chinese regions with mid- or high-level coronavirus risks, the body said: “it is recommended that you adopt measures to temporarily ban businesses from opening to avoid clustering that risks spreading the virus.”

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While this is not the first indication from Chinese authorities that cinemas should expect further rough days ahead, the State Council announcement is the highest level and most formal explicit statement on the matter yet. It follows recent remarks by President Xi Jinping and a statement from the National Film Bureau late last month that also called for continued closures. The State Council announcement has “dealt yet another fatal blow to the movie theater industry,” griped a widely-shared and scathing commentary from an anonymous exhibition sector executive who said he’s been in the business for a decade but is now contemplating whether to quit.

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He pointed out that though the statement is not tantamount to law, it will be taken as such by those in charge of enforcement, writing: “Everyone knows that there is essentially no difference between ‘recommending a temporary ban on re-opening’ and ‘clearly prohibiting reopening.’ Other industries are in full swing recovery, but the film industry is still far from it, alas!”

He called for the establishment of clear standard for when exactly the situation will be deemed safe enough for cinemas to re-open, such as a fixed date, or specific indicators of outbreak risk levels, such as days gone without new asymptomatic or imported cases.

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“If you give us indicators, then at least we have some hope. Cinema investors can judge when their cinemas might re-open, and practitioners can judge whether to continue to bite the bullet or simply switch jobs,” he said. “With no actual indicators, how is it doing any good to just say that you can’t re-open, no matter whether you’re in a high-, mid- or low-risk area?”

In his view, the risk of transmission in cinemas is no greater than in other enclosed spaces allowed to re-open like restaurants, where you must remove your mask to eat, or supermarkets, which you can still enter even if you have mild coronavirus-like symptoms.

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“If this is simply about the risk of spreading the coronavirus in confined spaces, why not ban all enclosed venues, instead of just entertainment venues?” he asked. “Our original sin of being ‘entertainment’ is the number one reason for not allowing us to do business.” Chinese authorities have long been wary of “overly entertaining” content, going so far as to ban such fare from the Internet and airwaves long before the pandemic created a national crisis.

The commentary concluded by asking for government support such as loans and funding in the face of a continued ban and an absence of indicators. “The cinema industry doesn’t have a right to preferential treatment, but we demand fairness.”

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Chinese cinemas have been closed since late January, despite a brief period where about 5% of them attempted to slowly re-open before the move was suddenly nixed. Those that re-opened performed disastrously, with hardly anyone choosing to attend.

In an online poll of 37,000 people conducted in late March by the state-run Guangzhou Daily just after the National Film Bureau called for continued closures, 71% of respondents said they were in favor of the decision. Only 14% said they looked forward to cinemas reopening because they wanted to go to the movies.

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The survey contradicts another released Tuesday of just 1,500 respondents jointly conducted by Chinese ticketing app Maoyan and the China Film Association. It found that 72% of respondents were interested in revisiting cinemas once they re-open. But it may not be a representative sample, as it likely drew on a pool of respondents who are already significant cinephiles and are within Maoyan’s existing reach. About 65% of respondents to the Maoyan/CFA poll expected their income to decline in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which led them to express more caution about entertainment spending in the rest of this year. About 26%, 33% and 35% of them said they expected a “significant decline” in their spending on dining, moviegoing and travel, respectively. Respondents were far more keen to watch new films with positive word-of-mouth than classics, and said they would be most swayed to revisit cinemas by strict prevention measures like temperature checks and steep ticket discounts.

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