In 2003, SARS provided a tremendous opportunity for China to reform its film industry. It became more open and vibrant. COVID-19 could potentially do the same.

As reported yesterday, although surveys show optimism for audience to return to cinemas, the biggest challenge the industry faces is the lack of films. No new films (local and foreign) have yet announced a release date after being pulled from late January. Rumours have been circulating around since early February that perhaps China will relax its regulation on re-releases. Unlike the UK, to re-release an older title or a classic in China is not a straight forward process, specially foreign films. This regulation changes from time to time without transparency, which makes it even more difficult for buyers to follow. There were two surprises last year however, THE LEGEND OF 1900 and LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, where the former achieved a box-office over 100m RMB.

Facing the challenge of having no new films to show, allowing older films to be re-released is the quickest strategy to help cinemas slowly getting back to businesses. On March 17, China Film Group Co. issued a statement to all cinema chains and cinema management companies. The statement reads:

The Beijing Film Distribution Branch under China Film Group Co. will supply the first batch DCP copies of the following films: AMERICAN DREAMS IN CHINA (2003, China), WOLF TOTEM (2015, China/France), WOLF WARRIOR 2 (2017, China), THE WANDERING EARTH (2019, China) and CAPERNAUM (2018, Lebanon/France/USA). After an agreement between China Film Group Co. (distribution) and the right holders of these five films, the revenue sharing set up for this occasion will be adjusted from 43%: 57% (cinemas) to 0%:100%. In other words, these films will be a total donation to the exhibition sector. We also advise cinemas to consider reducing their ticket price, in order to benefit a wider audience. We will announce the 2nd batch of films for the same release arrangement in due course. 

Like many things else, this distribution set up is purely Chinese and can never be copied elsewhere (certainly not in Capitalist countries). The selection of the so called ‘film donations’ is understandable. CONVID-19 has certainly escalated the geopolitics between China and the US. While finding ways to support the cinema sector, the government at the same time needs to be careful where it comes to ideology.  Regardless, in my opinion, this specific strategy led by China Film Group Co. makes sense and it is the quickest way to supply content for cinemas at the beginning of reopening. While many new films are still observing the market and its recovery, they might not want to release their films immediately. However, the “donation” method may be a short term solution to resolve the film supply problem. The core distribution mechanism remains a main key in helping the exhibition sector to recover among other factors. Both China Film Group Co. and Huaxia Film Distribution Co. are currently evaluating which other older foreign films or classics can be rereleased during this period of time. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for China to relax its restriction on re-distribution of older titles, if the result of such experiment continues to prove successful.

When SARS ended in 2003, Huaxia was launched, which became the second state owned company that was given a licence to distribute foreign imported films. It is in my hope that China can once again catch this opportunity to further open its market, in particular in distribution. Its industry needs it, urgently, so does the world.

A very sentimental open letter is about to come. It’s now or never, please stay in touch!

We can all go through this together. 


Previous COVID-19 special commentary:

3/18/2020 – Public opinions on reopening cinemas in China, post COVID-19