Coronavirus Outbreak Hammers China’s Box Office

The coronavirus outbreak is grinding public activity in China to a halt. The entertainment sector has been particularly hard hit, with the cinema industry losing millions in a matter of days and projected to lose millions more over the next month. Almost all of China’s movie theaters, about 70,000 screens, have gone dark due to the outbreak.

Many Chinese people would normally take in movies during the Lunar New Year holiday, but the timing of the coronavirus epidemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the local film industry. In the first three days of last year’s holiday, Chinese theaters raked in a whopping $507 million. Analysts expected that number to be surpassed this year. Instead, most of the theaters closed to avoid congregating people in small areas and the theaters that remained open only earned about $2 million.

Now, the openings of six big titles that were set to debut for the holiday weekend have been pushed back indefinitely. Those titles included Detective Chinatown 3, Lost in Russia, Leap, The Rescue, Vanguard and Boonie Bears: The Wild Life. Huanxi Media later released Lost in Russia online for free instead of waiting for cinemas to reopen, sparking anger from China’s exhibitors. Those exhibitors issued a joint letter promising to boycott all future releases from Huanxi.

Chinese film executives are now contending with the possibility that total box office in late January through February will be next to nothing. Worldwide box office revenues could drop by $1 billion to $2 billion this year if the situation is not resolved soon. Worldwide grosses hit an all-time high of $42.5 billion last year, with China turning in $9.2 billion.

The economic damage wrought by the epidemic could spread far beyond China’s borders. Most of the movie industry damage so far has been borne by Chinese companies, but North American film entity Imax, which operates more than 680 theaters in China, is starting to feel the pain as well. Shares in the company’s China subsidiary, listed in Hong Kong, fell 17.5 percent in the 12 days between Jan. 16 and Jan. 28.