China’s Box Office Breaks World Record as U.S. Theaters Struggle with Bankruptcy

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AP Photo/Fu Ting

China’s state-run Global Times reported that Friday, the first day of Lunar New Year, broke the box-office record for a single movie market anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic has left the once-mighty American theater industry teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

Chinese theaters reported over $263 million in movie ticket sales, breaking both world records and China’s previous single-day record from 2019. Theaters in Beijing and other large Chinese cities said some of their screenings were completely sold out. Seating capacity has been limited to 50 percent in movie theaters as a social distancing measure.

“As the first such moviegoing peak period following the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] outbreak, this year’s Spring Festival holiday is of great importance to China’s film industry and is seen as a further mark of recovery in the box office market and also reveals Chinese people’s confidence in the country’s virus prevention and control,” the Global Times asserted.

Industry analysts and movie theater staff said one reason for the strong box office performance is that many Chinese decided to avoid traveling to visit relatives, as they traditionally do during the Lunar New Year holiday. This created a large pool of customers looking for holiday entertainment at their local movie theaters. Some Chinese customers said online that they saw going to the movies as a means of declaring victory over the coronavirus.

The top attraction at the Chinese box office was Detective Chinatown 3, an action-comedy originally scheduled for release a year ago, but was delayed due to the pandemic. It raked in $393 million during its opening weekend. The highest-grossing film in U.S. box-office history, Avengers: Endgame, made $357 million during its opening weekend in American theaters.

The number two spot in China was taken by Hi, Mom, a time-travel comedy-drama about a woman who journeys 20 years into the past and befriends her mother as a young woman.

The top movie at the U.S. box office over the weekend was The Croods: A New Age, an animated film that was released 12 weeks ago. It grossed about $2 million in ticket sales between Friday and Sunday, which would scarcely have made the Top 20 in a normal Valentine’s Day weekend before the pandemic.

Major American theater chains are struggling with bankruptcy after a year of complete shutdowns, sparse attendance at the few theaters that were open, and a drought of major new releases as big-budget movies were delayed time and again. 

AMC Theaters announced in late January that it was saved from bankruptcy by an emergency infusion of $506 million from investors plus a $411 million line of credit extended by AMC’s European subsidiary. Even with this additional funding, AMC’s plan for avoiding bankruptcy is still ominously dependent on landlords slashing rent payments for theaters and audiences returning to theaters in significant numbers fairly soon.

CBS News summarized the dire financial situation facing the major American theater chains:

AMC, Cinemark, Regal and other theaters are also reporting revenue fallout as many of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters have either been postponed or released on streaming services. Movie theater companies saw their revenue plummet by more than 75% last spring and summer, according to data from the Motion Picture Association, Directors Guild of America and National Association of Theatre Owners. 

Declines in attendance and revenue at AMC theaters in the U.S. reached 92% by the end of the third quarter of last year, leading the company to predict it would run out of cash by the end of 2020.

Numbers for the fourth quarter were no better. AMC saw a 92.3% drop in U.S. attendance in the fourth quarter, compared to the same period a year ago, according to a recent SEC filing. As of that time AMC was operating 438 of its 593 U.S. locations open with limited seating and was burning through roughly $125 million a month to do so, the filing states. 

AMC warned of impending bankruptcy shortly before Christmas, after Warner Bros. announced their entire slate of films for 2021 would be released on the HBO Max streaming service the same day they were released to theaters, beginning with the long-delayed Wonder Woman 1984 and including major upcoming titles like Dune and the new Matrix sequel.

In essence, a sizable portion of the audience would be able to watch the movies that were expected to revive the American box office in 2021 for free, from their homes. Some theater industry analysts believe the old model of theaters enjoying exclusive access to new releases for months before they are made available for streaming will never fully return, which would deal a major blow to the business model for selling extremely expensive movie tickets.

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