China’s box office receipts hit 10-year low as ongoing Covid-19 restrictions produce a sad storyline for country’s cinemas

Cinema box office sales in China during the Dragon Boat Festival holiday hit a 10-year low amid the country’s ongoing coronavirus control measures in various cities.

Sales for the three-day holiday that started on Friday totalled 178 million yuan (US $ 26.7 million) by noon on Sunday, according to figures from ticketing platform Maoyan. This was the lowest in 10 years and compares with 251 million in 2013, when the country’s total number of movie screens was about 80 per cent less than the current number of 82,248.

The weak performance follows a similar 10-year low in box office sales for the three-day Ching Ming holiday this April, and occurred even though 80 per cent of cinemas were in operation over the long weekend, according to analytics firm Dengta, which is owned by the Post’s owner Alibaba Group Holding.

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Maoyan did not disclose box office takings for the Dragon Boat Holiday in 2020, when Covid-19 first spread across China and cinemas were closed for 175 days.

“The main reason for this plunge [in takings] is Covid-19, which has affected cinema opening times and the scheduling of new films, “said Han Siqi, a film and TV critic, adding that it would only be fair to attribute any downturn to other factors when the situation returns to normal.

Yu Sikun, an analyst at research firm LeadLeo, agreed that the lacklustre results for the long weekend were partly due to Covid-19 affected scheduling decisions, with bigger film releases saved for the summer.

The top three films during this year’s holiday were home-grown romantic comedy My Blue SummerAmerican cartoon The Bad Guys and Japanese cartoon Doraemon: Nobita’s Little Star Wars 2021However, these have been much less popular than films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales- shown during 2017’s holiday ―――― and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom –shown in 2018, according to Yu.

Wang Wanlu, a Shanghai-based film enthusiast, said that while cinema attendance quickly returned to normal in the second half of 2020 when Covid-19 calmed down, this year is “more unpredictable”, adding that she has not been to a physical screening of a movie since February.

Cinemas in Shanghai, China’s commercial hub, are categorised as’crowded places’ under Covid-19 rules and have not been allowed to reopen despite the city’s plan to gradually lift restrictions for the city’s 25 million residents from June 1. The committee of the Shanghai International Film Festival said on Monday it was postponing its annual event’s 25th edition to next year.

Half of China’s public film and TV companies, including Huayi Brothers Media Corp and Beijing Enlight Media Co, had a combined loss of 1.3 billion yuan last year, according to domestic consulting firm SWS Research. Huayi, which has invested in high-grossing films such as comedy Hi, Mom and war film The Eight Hundredreported a 6.73 per cent decrease in revenue in 2021 compared to a year ago.

China beat North America for the second time in a row in 2021 as the world’s largest theatrical film market with 47.3 billion yuan in sales. It also has the world’s most movie screens, reaching 82,248 last year.

However, even before the onset of Covid-19, the film industry was facing a challenge as competition intensified from internet companies such as Alibaba Pictures and Tencent Pictures. The latter companies produce films and charge traditional film publishers commission when selling tickets through online platforms such as Alibaba’s Taopiaopiao, Meituan and Tencent Holdings-backed Maoyan.

Purchasing movie tickets online has become prevalent for Chinese internet users. According to a March survey by market research firm iiMedia, Taopiaopiao and Maoyan were used by 65.5 per cent and 60.8 per cent of survey participants respectively, with only one third of them using the online services of cinemas.

Yu Dong, founder, chairman and chief executive of traditional film production company and distributor Polybona Films, hit out at the likes of Taopiaopiao and Maoyan for their high commission fees last June. “The companies are charging more service fees than China’s specialised film fund, “he was reported to have said during an industry event.

China takes a 5 per cent cut from every movie’s box office sales, which goes towards the fund, the online ticketing platforms charge around 10 per cent on each ticket sold.

LeadLeo’s Yu said China’s cinemas are adapting in an attempt to counter the effects of Covid-19. “They are doing [more] presales [activities] to recoup funds and save on labour cost, they are also extending screening times adding more slots for viewers, “he said.

Wang, who representing to watching films online during the Covid-19 lockdown, is waiting for the time when she can go back to the cinema.

“The experience at home hasn’t been as satisfying,” she said. “When Covid-19 is gone, I want to go to the cinema once a month.”

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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