Here’s What It’s Like to Go See Movies in China and Why It Seems to Be Working

QR codes. No food. And don't even think about taking off that mask. But yes, audiences are going to the movies in China.
A movie theater restarts in Beijing, China on July 24, 2020, amid continuing worries over the new coronavirus COVID-19. The number of seats is restricted with 30% of the normal number to keep the social distance.     ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )
A movie theater restarts in Beijing, China on July 24, 2020

As of July 20, most movie theaters in China have been allowed to reopen, with the exception of a few Covid hotspots like the far Western Xinjiang Province. Perhaps no one breathed a heavier sigh of relief than Fu Wenxia, Managing Director of the Shanghai International Film Festival. With opening night scheduled for July 25, the annual festival had been stuck in a state of limbo for months. Up until that point, organizers had considered hosting this year’s festival online, but knew it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact as having live audiences in the movie theater. “We were really nervous waiting for the final decision,” said Fu. “As soon as we got the news on July 16, we immediately announced our opening date.” Within two hours of their announcement, the festival had sold more than 90 percent of its tickets.

That enthusiasm has echoed throughout the country. Across China, from the far north of Beijing to the Southern city of Chengdu, movie theaters are seeing strong box office numbers, despite 30 percent capacity limitations. It’s not business as usual, but there has been business: In early August, “Dolittle” and a re-release of “Interstellar” topping the box office and contributing to an overall $17.5 million across the country.

People who have been holed up in their homes for months are eager to get out to cinemas, despite the awkwardness of social distancing with masks. One cinema in the southern city of Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, even came up with a creative solution to the isolation of mandatory empty seats by filling them with large, huggable stuffed animals called “MOMO” which are disinfected after each screening. It might not sound as appealing as leaning on your lover’s warm shoulder, but hey, in these times of starved intimacy you take what you can get.

A patron wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus holds her hand to a temperature scanner as she enters a movie theater in Beijing, Friday, July 24, 2020. Beijing partially reopened movie theaters Friday as the threat from the coronavirus continues to recede in China’s capital. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
A patron wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus holds her hand to a temperature scanner as she enters a movie theater in Beijing, Friday, July 24, 2020.AP

The experience of seeing a movie in a Chinese theater has always been different than in the West. For one, most Chinese movie theaters are quite new and modern, and often far more luxurious, with more spacious seats and comfortable than anything in your average multiplex. Many cities even have small VIP theaters where you can rent a private suite and watch films together with a small group of friends, much like a karaoke bar.

Prior to the pandemic, moviegoing in China was classy affair. Before going to a theater, most people opt to buy their tickets on social media app WeChat, which offers discount combo deals on movie tickets and snacks. On arrival, you select your seats from a screen at the ticket counter, then pick up your food. If you arrive late, someone in a bow-tie will politely escort you with a flashlight to your designated seat. It’s all vaguely reminiscent of the golden era of cinema in America in the 1950s — but with the latest computer animated Hollywood blockbusters, 3-D projection and high-tech surround sound systems.

Since the July 20 reopening, the typical experience has evolved. The ticket counter has been phased out, and the entire check-in process is done online. Masks are mandatory, as is social distancing – at least one meter must be maintained between moviegoers. There is no concession stand, as all food and drinks are forbidden. And the friendly ushers in bow-ties are now tasked with enforcing the rules. If they catch you pulling a snack out of your purse, you’ll be politely asked to step outside and eat your Twizzlers in the lobby before being escorted back inside to finish the movie.

Needless to say, these sort of procedures would be tricky to maintain in the U.S., where masks have been politicized and people don’t exactly love to follow the rules. During the height of the epidemic in China, there were also a few people who also stubbornly flouted the compulsory mask requirements. They usually ended up handcuffed or, in one extreme case, tied to a tree.

But there’s another new aspect of the cinema experience that’s perhaps the most controversial, and least replicable, anywhere outside of China.

Before entering a theater, each guest must scan a QR code that logs their identity, then tracks their location so that if someone is diagnosed with Covid, the authorities know not only where to find you, but also everyone you’ve come into contact with. This isn’t new — it’s been used for years already in key aspects of China’s infrastructure, including its national high-speed rail system. But the expansion of mass surveillance and tracking into places like movie theaters is, arguably, one of the most effective tools for allowing life to return to “normal” in China today.

Volunteers with the Blue Sky Rescue team perform disinfecting of a cinema before it reopens for business in Beijing on Friday, July 24, 2020. Theaters in China, the world’s second largest movie market, this week reopened from the coronavirus shut down with theaters limited to 30% capacity. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Volunteers with the Blue Sky Rescue team perform disinfecting of a Beijing cinema — and its “Venom” installation.AP

“I think people feel very confident to go to movie theaters precisely because the government is using these kind of tracking measures,” one moviegoer in China said. She asked not to be identified, but that sentiment is a familiar one across China, where attitudes about privacy and security measures differ greatly from the West.

Regardless, this model is uniquely feasible in China due to the ubiquity of WeChat, the multipurpose app that functions as a form of social media, a digital wallet and much more. It’s also tied to a user’s national ID card (shen fen zheng). Pretty much anyone who has a phone in China has WeChat. It’s almost impossible to survive or function without it. And while Facebook and Twitter are similar, there is no real equivalent to it anywhere else in the world.

It’s ironic that the first major Hollywood film scheduled for release in Chinese theaters is “Tenet” (a film whose premise centers around preventing the outbreak of World War III) considering the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the world’s two major superpowers. Yet fears that Beijing may retaliate against recent U.S. moves — like shutting down its embassy in Houston and banning TikTok — by boycotting the Hollywood film industry so far appear to be unfounded. Although the highly anticipated “Mulan” has yet to receive a release date in China (Disney will release the film on streaming later this year), “Tenet” is slated to open in theaters across China on September 4.

Jing Hui, head of the Shanghai Association of Movie Theaters, said that the industry remains committed to embracing Hollywood films, which by his estimate accounts for more than 30 percent of all box office revenues in China. “[Christopher] Nolan is a very popular director in China whose films have been well-received here in the past,” Jing said of the “Tenet” director. “For our industry, big films like these are very important because they’re especially well-suited for watching in a movie theater, compared to lower-budget films that people might prefer to watch at home. Most of the big budget films are Hollywood movies, so I don’t think politics are going to play a significant role in this decision process.”

2019-06-07 Mx Drag
A live performance at the Pearl Theater in Shanghai after reopening last month.Grant-oh! Buchwald

On that note, China also reversed its stance on the feature film “The Eight Hundred”, directed by Guan Hu. The first Mainland Chinese film shot entirely on IMAX cameras was initially slated for opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival before being abruptly pulled from both the festival as well as its upcoming commercial release over controversy surrounding its depiction of Kuomintang Nationalists (now the government of Taiwan) as heroes of a historic WWII battle. “The Eight Hundred” is now scheduled for national release on August 21. It’s clear that Covid played a hand in that decision, considering how big of a hit the Chinese film industry has taken, and the steps the government has taken to intervene and help keep it alive, including a massive financial bail-out.

Meanwhile, some smaller arthouse venues in China have not only managed to survive, but in fact thrive during the closure of big multiplex theaters. Canadian-born Grant Buchwald runs a 80-seat theater called The Pearl in a historic building near Shanghai’s famous Bund district, hosting everything from cabaret to film nights and drag queen shows. “When the government allowed us to reopen April 1, all live performances were cancelled so we had to show movies five days a week,” he said. “With no other movie choices in town, we were very fortunate and seemed to reach a whole new audience that have been coming back ever since.”

Buchwald said he shows everything from newer films like “The Joker” and “Parasite” on an 8.5 meter screen to musical classics like “Rocky Horror” and “Hairspray”, complete with audience participation.

While he still abides by the social distancing rules, limiting capacity to about 30 percent, The Pearl isn’t subject to the same rigid restrictions as bigger movie theaters. No stuffed MOMO animals here — just soft shoulders, sweet drag queens, all-you-can-eat salted kettle popcorn, and an extensive cocktail menu. Maybe there is a light at the end of the Covid tunnel after all.

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