Why footfalls are falling at cinemas nationwide

People watch a movie at the reopened Capital Cinema (Xidan branch) in Beijing, July 24, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Will you go to the movies during the upcoming May Day holiday? This is really a difficult question amid a resurgence of COVID-19 in many cities.

More than half of China’s cinemas have been closed since February due to the resurgence of the novel coronavirus. The impact of the rising infections, especially because of the more infectious Omicron variant, on cinemas can be gauged from the fact that the daily box office revenue fell below 10 million yuan ($1.55 million) on March 24, the lowest on the Chinese mainland in a decade.

Of bigger concern for cinemas is the fact that they may not see a reversal of the trend of declining numbers of cinemagoers, accelerated by the pandemic, in the post-pandemic era.

Let’s take the box office during the Spring Festival holiday, which has long been considered a golden period for cinemas, for example. China Film Administration data show the country’s total box office during this year’s Spring Festival holiday was about 6.04 billion yuan from 114 million tickets sold.

In comparison, the Spring Festival holiday in 2021 witnessed a strong consumption rebound with 160 million tickets sold and a box office of 7.82 billion yuan. In fact, except for 2020 when a lockdown, implemented to contain the pandemic, halted much of economic activities, the number of cinema tickets sold during the Spring Festival holiday in recent years has been higher than this year-for instance in 2018 and 2019 they were 145 million and 132 million respectively, according to Lighthouse, an Alibaba-owned box office tracker.

Lighthouse data also show the average ticket price during the past five Spring Festival holidays, excluding 2020, was 39.72 yuan in 2018, 44.66 yuan in 2019,48.88 yuan in 2021 and 52.77 yuan in 2022. Some tickets for IMAX 2D movies were reportedly sold out for even 170 yuan in Beijing and Shanghai during prime time this Spring Festival.

Having had to spend the past two Spring Festival holidays in Beijing, I have witnessed such craze firsthand. And while I refused to pay 90-100 yuan for a ticket in 2021, I succumbed to the lure of watching a movie during Spring Festival and paid 90 yuan for one this year.

The annual average ticket price, too, has increased, topping 40 yuan for the first time in 2021 and reaching 45 yuan so far in 2022. According to the recently released “2021 China Cinema Visitor Survey” of the China Film News, 43.3 percent of the 4,000 respondents said they will pay 31-40 yuan for a cinema ticket, while only 7.6 percent said they will spend 50 yuan or more on a ticket.

The survey, however, showed the major reason people (about 26.8 percent) don’t want to go to the cinema is the lack of high-quality films. Cinemas and cinemagoers today have fewer choices, because the pandemic has created difficulties for movie production and distribution, and producers prefer making conventional movies (with intellectual property rights) to ensure their investment fetches enough returns.

In less than four months of this year, the release dates of eight domestic movies have either been canceled or deferred, in order to cash in on the festival season craze. As a result, cinemagoers have very few choices during the rest of the days.

Besides, the fever of Hollywood and Chinese IP movies has diminished to some extent. The third in the series of Harry Potter prequels, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, saw poor ticket sales, earning only about 18.66 million yuan on its opening day, April 8.

In 2016, Fantastic Beasts: Where to Find Them made 74 million yuan on the opening day, and in 2018, The Crimes of Grindelwald made 80.4 million yuan. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore had not earned 100 million yuan on the mainland until Thursday, making it the worst-performing Harry Potter prequel.

Box office returns are declining for Hollywood movies because Chinese cinemagoers have developed a liking for Chinese movies. Among the Chinese movies that have performed well are The Wandering Earth (a sci-fi flick), Dying To Survive (based on a true story of a vulnerable group), Ne Zha (animated feature), The Captain (disaster movie based on a true story), My People, My Country and The Battle at Lake Changjin (both historical films). Chinese people have also developed a liking for good Indian movies.

The huge success of China-themed movies shows the Chinese people’s taste is changing as far as films are concerned. They not only like good storytelling, close-to-life stories, but also want to know more about China’s recent past.

Rising streaming services, too, have played a role in Chinese people’s changing tastes. In fact, according to the “2021 China Cinema Visitor Survey”, 82.7 percent of the respondents said they preferred watching short videos, 59.4 percent said they visit streaming platforms, and only 39.6 percent said they go to the movies during leisure time.

Indeed, Apple-produced CODA winning the Oscar for Best Motion Picture at this year’s Academy Awards is a milestone for streaming platforms. Netflix-produced The Power of the Dog created another milestone as director Jane Campion won Best Director and the film was nominated for Best Motion Picture.

More importantly, Netflix has made massive investments to grab a higher market share worldwide while also producing excellent movies such as Roma and The Irishman. Tech giants such as Amazon and Apple and traditional entertainment giants Warner Bros and Disney, too, have rushed into the new sector. At home, Chinese streaming platforms iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video have bought popular movies and classics in large numbers.

For cinemas, the struggle to survive will continue, especially because of the declining annual box office-it was 20.42 billion yuan in 2020 and 47.26 billion yuan in 2021, compared with more than 60 billion yuan each in 2018 and 2019.

To compete with streaming platforms, therefore, cinemas need to offer new attractions to the people. For instance, they could consider exploiting their potential to meet people’s social demands because, according to the cinema visitor survey, 69.5 percent of the respondents said they regard going to the movies as a social activity.

The author is a writer with China Daily.

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