The coronavirus outbreak is crippling China’s film industry

The country was forced to shutter 70,000 movie theaters.
The country was forced to shutter 70,000 movie theaters.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
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China has shut down virtually all of its movie theaters and canceled the releases of several blockbuster movies amid the outbreak of coronavirus that has now killed 81 people in the country and sickened more than 3,000 others worldwide.

Due to the outbreak, Chinese film studios voluntarily postponed the releases of a number of tentpole films that were expected to draw huge crowds over the Lunar New Year holiday, which began Jan. 25. In an effort to help prevent the spread of the virus, and with no new films to screen anyway, China’s cinema chains decided to close more than 70,000 theaters around the country.

The Lunar New Year is one of the biggest weeks of moviegoing each year in China. Last year, the Chinese box office totaled $360 million during the first weekend of the holiday. But this year, with most of the country’s theaters shuttered and its movies postponed, the Chinese box office grossed only about $2 million over the holiday weekend, according to the ticketing platform Maoyan. It had been expected to generate as much as $1 billion globally.

The international releases of the blockbuster movies, which include action-comedy Detective Chinatown 3 and the sports movie Leap, have also been postponed indefinitely. China’s government does not allow Chinese films to be released in theaters in other countries until they have debuted in China.

The 70,000 theaters could remain closed through the end of February as the government works to contain the virus, Deadline reported. Health officials have warned people to avoid crowded, close-quarters places like movie theaters.

In addition to the billions in global ticket sales that will be lost, the virus could lead to a domino effect that would debilitate the Chinese film industry for months to come. When the films that were meant to debut over the holiday eventually do hit theaters, they could force other films to find new release dates, creating a scheduling mess both in China and elsewhere. Shares for Wanda Film Holdings, the studio behind Detective Chinatown 3, were already down 17% last week.

China is the world’s second largest film market, behind the United States in box office revenue. Some analysts believe the country will overtake the US in 2020, but the coronavirus outbreak will likely render that feat impossible this year.