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China has 70,000 movie theaters in the country, more than any nation on Earth, but right now, the number is essentially zero, as, following the nation's outbreak of coronavirus, the country's theaters have chosen to close down out of concern for public health as well as a lack of available content.
The shut down could not have come at a worse time from the perspective of the theaters. This weekend marks the beginning of the Lunar New Year, which is a major holiday period in China where a lot of the nation's native blockbuster films are released, equivalent to opening something during the long Thanksgiving period or Memorial Day Weekend in the United States.
However, the theaters ultimately had little choice but to close under the circumstances. Yesterday, according to THR, China's major studios announced that they would not be releasing all the highly anticipated films this weekend as planned. With no new movies in the theaters, and the fact that theater crowds offer the potential for the still largely not understood coronavirus to spread, theaters had little choice but to close down.
At this point it seems that any place where crowds might gather are taking precautions to avoid becoming potential centers for mass transmission. This morning Disney announced that Shanghai Disneyland will also be closed beginning Saturday.
It seems everybody is taking a "wait and see" approach to the situation. Theaters may only be closed for a few days, but it will depend largely on what the general landscape is regarding public health. If things don't improve, then we could see these closures last for some time.
Film presales for the weekend had reached $67.5 million, and now ticket sellers have to work to refund all of that.
While China is an important box office market not only for its domestic pictures, but international releases as well, the theater closure is not expected to have a massive impact on films from Hollywood or any place else outside of China. Foreign movies are actually blacked out from opening during the Lunar New Year weekend so as to give native projects a chance to succeed without foreign interference. This means nothing from outside of China was expecting a big opening. Although, if theater closures remain ongoing for a prolonged period, it will certainly impact the global box office.
China has become a market of growing importance to the American film industry. A movie that struggles at home can have such success in China that sequels that seemed unlikely at first end up happening. Projections have indicated that, at some point, China will overtake the United States as the top box office market in the world, though that has yet to happen, and blows like this one certainly won't help matters. Even once theaters reopen, it doesn't mean the audience will have complete confidence in returning at first, so it might take time before Chinese theaters recover.