As if there weren’t enough issues complicating theatrical releases, China has announced a new barrier. While it’s allowing theaters to reopen as of July 20, that permission comes with a caveat: To limit the length of time audiences spend in auditoriums, all titles must run two hours or less.
Though “Tenet” does not have a release date in China (the central authorities make that decision), Nolan’s last three films earned between 8 percent and 18 percent of their worldwide totals in the country. “Interstellar,” was the top performer; it grossed $122 million of its $668 million worldwide take.
China has not established and end date for its run-time rule. Warner Bros, which has less than four weeks before it’s scheduled to release “Tenet” in most territories, did not respond to inquiries as to whether the China ruling could affect the film’s release.
It isn’t uncommon for American films released in China to be shortened by censors, but it is hard to imagine Nolan readily trimming “Tenet” in order to comply with the ruling.
Most of China’s theaters will reopen, although not in Beijing and surrounding areas. First are reissues of recent local and international hits; Deadline reported that “Dolittle” (Universal) and “Bloodshot” (Sony) will go July 24, with “1917” (Universal) expected shortly thereafter. (“Dolittle” and “Bloodshot” run 101 and 109 minutes respectively; “1917” is just under the two-hour wire, at 119 minutes).
Disney’s “Mulan,” which runs 115 minutes, is expected to be a major hit in China. It currently has an August 21 worldwide release date, but again China has not confirmed it.
Trump administration officials have blasted American studios for self-censorship and otherwise letting China influence content decisions. In a speech Thursday, Attorney General William Barr claimed “kowtowing” (a phrase many find offensive) to China might violate U.S. lobbying laws. This comes among concerns that increased tensions between the two countries could lead to retaliatory actions on both sides which could include film distribution in the second largest market in the world.
Meanwhile, add run-time restrictions to the list of worries held by U.S. theaters and distributors. What if some local American authorities decide to follow suit? Some of the biggest theatrical successes are two hours or more; add in advertising and trailers, and there isn’t a single showtime that clocks in at fewer than 120 minutes.
Theaters and studios are already burdened by an unprecedented array of issues. It appears more than one situation affecting China just added more.