China Cinemas Will Bring Back Popular Movies to Kickstart Theatrical Reopening

China’s main state-owned distributor plans to issue a batch of half a dozen films, from which cinemas will keep all income, in order to get the country’s exhibition sector back on its feet after long closures due to coronavirus, it has said.

China Film Group on Tuesday detailed its selection of titles in a statement addressed to cinema operators and managers nation-wide circulating online and reported in the Chinese press.

They include four Chinese blockbusters: Peter Chan’s 2013 “American Dreams in China,” 2015’s “Wolf Totem,” directed by France’s Jean-Jacques Annaud, and two of the country’s highest grossing films of all time, the patriotic titles “Wolf Warrior 2” and sci-fi adventure “The Wandering Earth.”

The announcement mentioned one foreign film, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s 2018 Cannes Jury Prize-winner “Capernaum.” Two others, Oscar-winner “Green Book” and heart-warmer “A Dog’s Purpose,” produced by Alibaba-backed Amblin Partners, are also apparently on the list. 

The producers and distributors of the selected titles have agreed to forgo their typical 43% cut of the box office and donate it entirely to the country’s struggling cinemas. “These five films will be distributed in a charity model,” China Film Group said, with cinemas taking 100% of the profits. 

“We recommend that cinemas consider doing charitable, free screenings or low-cost screenings to benefit viewers” and get people back in the door, CFG said, before taking pains to emphasize that re-opened cinemas must stick to strict disinfection and hygiene procedures to keep the virus at bay.

“Our film was selected by the government to be re-released to support the theater chains which have been financially devastated by the epidemic,” a spokesman for Road Pictures, distributor of “Capernaum” told Variety. “Theaters will retain 100 percent of the revenue from these re-releases.”

With the Chinese public still uncertain about whether and when to venture back into crowded places such as cinemas, none of the Chinese-made tentpole movies which had their planned Chinese New Year releases are yet willing to commit to a post-virus release date.

Re-releasing well-loved older titles, however, minimizes financial risk and, benefiting from name recognition, does not require audiences to experiment with untried content.

Classic and older titles have recently found surprising box office success in the Middle Kingdom, where many were never accorded a theatrical release when they first came out. Recently, these have included Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” which grossed $69 million last summer, 18 years after its first release, as well as two 1998 pictures: Giuseppe Tornatore’s “The Legend of 1900,” which made $20.5 million in November, and Oscar-winner “Life is Beautiful,” which earned $8.24 million in just 22 days in January before coronavirus shut the cinemas down.

“Capernaum,” a tear-jerking tale about the travails of a street-hardened Lebanese boy, became a  breakout hit when it reached Chinese cinemas last April, earning $54.3 million

A second wave of films will be announced later. One exhibition sector employee told Variety Japanese animation films may make the next list.

The topic of what exactly will hit Chinese cinemas and when appears to be slightly sensitive to Chinese authorities at the moment, with even highly cautious state-run outlets deleting certain information that might have ultimately been deemed premature. Nevertheless, some information about what else may be in store for the world’s second-largest film market has been gaining traction online.

An online news outlet affiliated with the state-run Chengdu Daily has said that streaming giant iQiyi has provided some cinemas with two films on hard drives: its first original animated title “Spycies,” with a decryption key that expires May 10, and shark survival horror film “Uncaged: 47 Meters Down,” whose key expires April 9. Cinemas currently attempting to slowly re-open in Xinjiang have already programmed “Spycies” as one of their few available titles. 

Last Friday, the government-run film website 1905 Film put out an article on its official site that said China Film was preparing a screening series called “Unforgettable Memories: Screenings of Chinese and Foreign Classic Films,” indicating that classics would also be among the first titles to hit newly re-opened theaters.

It noted that “a large number of classic movies were inputted as having received approval codes in the national movie ticketing information management system,” which allows cinemas to schedule them in their systems for pre-sales. Among them were Chinese titles from the late 1980s such as “The Price of Frenzy” and “The Night Robbery.” The article was quickly deleted that same day — a frequent occurrence on China’s highly censored Internet for information that might be deemed sensitive or not yet suitable for release to the public.

Another commentary from an anonymous insider posting to China’s Twitter-like Weibo was widely spread among film industry professionals, reposted by cinemas, and reported by Chinese news outlets.

It said that Chinese distributors CFG and Huaxia were preparing a selection of films that included both domestic titles and flat-fee imports. The rights holders to most titles will forego their share of the box office entirely, while a few others may ask for a smaller proportion of what they would otherwise be owed.

The distributors are also choosing a selection of second-run foreign blockbusters, which will have their box office split as they typically would be, but with the expectation that cinemas will sell tickets for very low prices. If true, it could mean an unexpected bonus for Hollywood studios.

The commentary said that a slew of old titles would have encryption keys set to open on March 26. New arthouse films can be expected for release in early or mid-April, it added, while new foreign and domestic titles capable of commanding an even larger box office are being prepped for official release dates over the upcoming May 1 Labor Day holiday weekend, typically one of the year’s busier movie-going periods.

The comment was quickly set to private, accompanied by the explanation: “[Film bureau officials] say that the epidemic isn’t over yet. In order to avoid unnecessary trouble, it’s not time yet to speak out at such a grand scale.”

One Beijing-based exhibitor told Variety that their cinema had heard news about classic films being prepared and new arthouse titles arriving in April, but nothing yet had been formally confirmed.

“Up until now, we haven’t formally received a concrete list of films that will be available that details which older films we’ll be able to screen,” she said.

It hasn’t stopped movie buffs from getting excited.

“Could we be getting the ‘Lord of the Rings Trilogy’??????” wrote one super fan, accompanied by rows of excited emojis. Another wrote: “It seems like I’ll have to buy a few N95 masks just to watch movies with.”

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