Are movie theaters dead? Certainly not in China

January 4, 2021, 7:31 AM UTC

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China’s box office revenue on New Year’s Day hit a new record as moviegoers flocked to cinemas across the mainland. China’s containment of COVID-19 within its borders has allowed cinemas and other entertainment venues to operate nationwide.

Movie ticket sales in China reached $92 million on Jan. 1, according to ticketing platform Maoyan. The previous revenue record for New Year’s Day in China was $55 million on Jan. 1, 2018—nearly half the amount earned this year.

China reopened its economy earlier than most other countries in the world after successfully clamping down on the transmission of COVID-19, making it one of the few places in the world where new movies can premiere in cinemas with in-person audiences and film studios can rake in box office revenue.

Open movie theaters helped China surpass the U.S. to become the biggest movie market in the world last year, despite its box office revenue dropping from $9.1 billion in 2019 to $2.8 billion in 2020, due to cinema shutdowns early in the pandemic. The total box office revenue for the U.S. in 2020 was $2.1 billion.

Chinese film The Eight Hundred, which came out in August, earned $461 million in the global box office, making it 2020’s highest-grossing film, according to ticket tracking website Box Office Mojo. It is the first Chinese film to reach the No. 1 spot in the global box office.

Two domestic movies released on Dec. 31, A Little Red Flower and Warm Hug, grabbed China’s No. 1 and No. 2 box office spots, respectively, for Jan. 1, followed by a Hong Kong–Chinese film titled Shock Wave 2 at No. 3. Disney and Pixar’s animated film, Soul, came in fifth.

Just over a year ago, cinemas in China closed as the coronavirus started to spread. Some began to reopen in late March 2020, but ticket sales were sluggish so China’s national film bureau reversed the decision days later, shutting cinemas until July 20. Most cinemas started reopening on that summer date and have remained open since.

In the U.S., by contrast, most cinemas are still shuttered, and blockbuster Hollywood productions like Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984 have postponed their 2020 releases to 2021 or premiered on streaming platforms instead of in theaters to accommodate the venue closures.

China’s movie theater recovery in 2020 accelerated the already growing importance of the Chinese box office to Hollywood films.

U.S.-produced Soul, for example, premiered on streaming platform Disney+ for U.S.-based viewers, but premiered in cinemas across 10 countries, including China, where it earned $5.5 million of its $7.6 million opening weekend box office revenue.