Will COVID-19 Make China's Movie Theaters Vanish Forever?

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the Chinese film industry. But it's the movie houses themselves that have suffered most.

Seat distancing applied at a movie theater in Jinan
Seat distancing applied at a movie theater in Jinan
Li Zhaoxing

HONG KONG — China's movie theaters finally got the go-ahead to reopen, albeit only in certain "low-risk" areas and with a 30% capacity cap on seating. Either way, it's a step in the direction of normality and a positive sign for the Chinese film industry, which has struggled mightily as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

But there are also questions about whether it's too little too late for movie theaters themselves, which as a distribution model was hurting even before the current health crisis.

So far this year, box office receipts are down a staggering 90% in China. Things are likely to improve somewhat starting now, but even in a best-case scenario, ticket sales in 2020 are likely to end up being less than a third of what they were in 2019.

Meanwhile, due to the accumulated number of blockbusters that, for one reason or another, haven't been released, the film industry is experiencing a cash-flow crisis with far-reaching implications. Without sufficient funds, studios have had to halt future productions. Others have gone belly up. And that, in turn, has impacted the entire chain of the film-studio economy, including actors, designers, equipment providers and everyone else.

Research carried out during the coronavirus outbreak found that there are approximately 12,000 movie theaters in China with a total of 70,000 screens. The question now isn't just how many of those venues will be allowed to reopen but, given the economic crisis, how many will be able to.

For a while, China saw shopping centers mushroom everywhere, particularly in third and fourth-tier cities. And in most of those shopping centers, there were movie theaters. This prompted the meteoric rise of the Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate of commercial property developers and cinemas that once owned a majority stake in AMC, the world's largest movie theater chain.

In more recent years, however, the trend has faded due in part to urban development changes but also because of shifts in consumer habits. Indeed, movie theaters no longer play such a dominant role as a place for both entertainment and socializing.

Audiovisual entertainment is adapting to cater to consumers who are inclined more and more to staying home and having content delivered to them. For young, marriage-age couples, movie theaters used to be a typical date night option. Now those people prefer being couch potatoes in the comfort of their own living rooms. They're also more likely to have fancy home-cinema equipment such as a large, ultra-thin television, most of which are made in China and now only cost about 2,000 yuan (less than $300).

Movie theaters no longer play such a dominant role as a place for both entertainment and socializing.

Moreover, for Generation Z — people in their teens and 20s who grew up with the internet — watching films and being actively engaged in social media go hand-in-hand. From a social standpoint, they're less interested in sitting, cut off from the digital world, in a traditional cinema.

Staff members disinfecting the seats at a movie theater in Shanghai — Photo: Ren Long/Xinhua/ZUMA

The fact of the matter is that from tastes to topics, the film and television content offered by online platforms is much closer to young people's interests today. From the two-dimensional animation of Station B, a high-quality web series produced by the Chinese online video platform iQIYI, to reality and talent shows, these non-traditional providers offer the type of entertainment people want. Buying a ticket to go to a cinema is no longer cool.

Netflix emphasizes big data and high quality. It owes its success to the fact that its subscribers can see new films first-hand and all in one go. It also offers original productions from master film makers.

Chinese video platforms, in contrast, focus less on the quality of their series. But like Netflix, they're also greatly attached to data and put a lot of thought into how they run their subscriptions. And in some ways, they're even more attentive, in real-time, to audience responses so as to adapt their offerings for the following week.

In recent years there have been few blockbuster productions in China.

Chinese film and television makers are also subject to a different set of ideological constraints than their Western counterparts. Recently, rumors made the rounds that the state could impose new guidelines, particularly with regards to historical and romantic dramas, and to content about homosexuals. The information is unproven and probably exaggerated. But rather than risk having their productions banned, studios are likely to play it safe and self-censor.

They're also more inclined to toe a conservative, patriotic kind of political line, and that's a direct blow to the creative process. The documentary film Chinese Doctor is a case in point. The movie, much-hyped by authorities, focuses on how frontline medical staff combat COVID-19, with an emphasis on stoking patriotic and nationalistic sentiment.

In the short-term — especially without the normal amount of competition from Hollywood — the film has a chance to do well and boost China's circular, internal-market economy. The greater concern, though, is that it's symptomatic of an industry that has lost both energy and direction.

In recent years there have been few blockbuster productions in China, and given the current capital-supply problems, it's unclear when there will be again. Netflix has made an unprecedented impact on television and film production the world over. Today, all resources are flowing toward the streaming services. iQiyi, Tencent Film and Television, and Youku are all following suit and targeting this market.

Earlier in the year, a Chinese comedy called Lost in Russia had to be released online due to the coronavirus crisis. It was supposed to be an exception to the rule, but more recently another Chinese film, Double World, opted for an online launch as well, with a simultaneous release on iQiyi and Netflix.

Suddenly this is looking like a new model, one that will no doubt revolutionize China's film industry. The sector will change, in other words, but survive. Whether we can say the same thing about movie theaters is a whole other question.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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