Hundreds of millions of people are stuck in cities around China during these New Year holidays as coronavirus restrictions bring to a halt a travel season that is usually the world’s largest annual migration. Instead, they go to the cinema – and provide a revival at the box office.
The latest in a long-running buddy cop series, “Detective Chinatown 3,” Maoyan raised an estimated $ 397 million for three days to track ticket sales in the country. This set a world record for the largest opening weekend in a single market. The previous record holder “Avengers: Endgame” grossed 357 million US dollars when it opened this weekend in the USA and Canada.
The strong demeanor was a haunting reminder of the power of the Chinese consumer. While the Chinese economy has returned as the country has largely tamed the coronavirus, shoppers and moviegoers have opened their wallets more slowly.
Now people like Sophia Jiang are willing to spend money even on a film that has received lukewarm reviews.
During the New Year holidays, Ms. Jiang, a 40-year-old freelance writer, usually went to her hometown in northern Jilin Province with her parents. However, authorities have restricted visits to headquarters this year to contain any coronavirus outbreaks. Photos shared on Chinese social media showed eerily empty railroad cars at a time when travelers are usually packed shoulder to shoulder.
Ms. Jiang, who is stuck in southern Shenzhen City, has so far gone to the movies three times during the seven-day vacation ending Wednesday. “Detective Chinatown 3,” she said, was the worst.
“The story wasn’t that bad,” Ms. Jiang said, “but it wasn’t particularly amazing either, and I fell asleep twice.”
Quality aside, China’s booming box office yield offered a promising sign for the global film industry, where cinemas big and small have been decimated by the pandemic and worries about the future of cinema attendance.
By Tuesday morning, China’s box office revenues for the new year had reached $ 1.55 billion, according to local box office chasers. In contrast, total ticket sales last year in the United States, where many theaters are struggling to survive, were $ 2.2 billion.
“Some have argued that during the pandemic, people got used to watching online entertainment at home,” said Jane Shao, president of Lumière Pavilions, a Chinese cinema chain, in a telephone interview. “But I think this is proof that cinemas are an effective place for social gatherings.”
Ms. Shao, who oversees 40 cinemas in 26 cities in China, said the return of the New Year’s box office compared to last year when the virus outbreak in Wuhan caused the government to close theaters like “day and night” was the beginning of the vacation. The recovery has been slow, she said, but the latest numbers have been encouraging.
“It’s been a devastating year for our industry, but people were thrilled to come back to the theaters,” said Ms. Shao.
“Detective Chinatown 3” was originally scheduled for release during last year’s vacation. China’s theaters mostly reopened in July, but most were limited to 75 percent seating capacity during this month’s vacation, and only 50 percent in areas like Beijing that have recently seen small outbreaks.
The theaters have been told not to sell concessions, which further increases profits. Movie ticket prices while on vacation were higher than usual, which helped fill the void.
The film shows two detectives, played by Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran, who go to Tokyo to investigate the murder of a powerful businessman. Online viewers criticized the excessive advertising for product placements, scenes of abuse against women, and scattered storylines. However, the film benefited from the strong brand awareness of the Detective Chinatown franchise.
The New Year holidays have traditionally been a sought-after window for film releases, and moviegoers have had more choices than in previous years. At the weekend, “Hi, Mom,” a time-travel comedy that Maoyan said grossed $ 161.9 million, took second place. A Writer’s Odyssey, an adventure film, took third place for $ 48.4 million.
Rudolph Tang, 41, a classical music critic, said he saw all three. But he said he felt especially compelled to watch “Detective Chinatown 3” in part because he remembered putting a poster for the film on the facade of Shanghai’s historic Grand Cinema at the height of the Chinese coronavirus outbreak Having seen a year when it was normally busy streets had been emptied and cinemas closed.
“The film brought back many memories of the hardship people went through,” Tang said in a telephone interview. “I felt like I was making a statement that the scar was healed in China and that people can now go back to theaters and watch films.”
Last year, box office sales in China were $ 3.13 billion. This makes China the world’s largest film market ahead of the USA. However, it’s not clear if China’s film industry’s early momentum this year can push it past its 2019 performance when it had sales of $ 9.2 billion.
China’s box office success will depend in part on Hollywood’s pace of recovery. Although domestic productions are on the rise, China still has a huge appetite for Hollywood movies, and many theater managers are hoping that titles like No Time to Die, the latest Bond film, and Disney’s Black Widow will stay on schedule Theatrical releases later that year.
It’s also unclear what role the particular circumstances of this year’s New Year holiday could have played in the weekend’s impressive box office performance. According to Chinese state media, air traffic in the first week of the vacation period was 72 percent lower than at the same time last year. Train travel fell by 68 percent in the first two weeks of the travel season compared to the previous year.
Still, the phenomenon of going to the movies during the New Year holidays seems to linger here.
“Celebrating the New Year in China traditionally means lighting fireworks, eating dumplings and watching the Spring Festival gala,” said Yin Hong, a film professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Now it is becoming more and more part of this tradition to go to the cinema with the family.”
Coral Yang and Liu Yi contributed to the research.