Art and Experience: Some moviegoers feel China’s exhibition sector has been unfairly targeted by prolonged closures and excessive COVID-19 prevention measures, Variety found in a WeChat-based survey of cinema patrons.

Survey respondents, who participated on the condition of anonymity, felt the protective measures required of cinemas helped to lower the risk of movie-going, but that the exhibition sector had been subject to overly cautious treatment.

The vast majority of the 36 respondents — around 60% of whom said they typically watch 1-5 movies a week — hailed from Shanghai, Beijing or other first-tier cities like Nanjing or Hangzhou. Most encountered the survey while attending the festival earlier this month, and are self-professed “movie fans,” or hardcore cinephiles.

More than half, or 58%, of respondents said they weren’t more worried or cautious about going to cinemas in the wake of the pandemic, while 33% said they were.

Many comments demonstrated faith in China’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines and management system. “As long as cinemas are following the prevention regulations, there won’t be any problems,” one wrote.

Yet many also criticized the overly restrictive regulations, with nearly 15% of respondents describing the rules as merely “formalist.” The authorities’ regulations when it came to cinemas, they felt, were mostly there just to show that they take the pandemic seriously.

“Other than requiring masks throughout, I think the regulations are much more formalist than truly meaningful; they have little impact on actual epidemic prevention,” one said.

Many compared cinemas to restaurants, “the real high-risk venues.”

“Are they requiring people at restaurants to [wear] masks? Are restaurant capacity rates capped at 30%? Are restaurants cleared out every two hours for an intermission and disinfection?” one respondent asked, while another noted: “The regulations are to some degree beneficial for preventing COVID, but unless they’re are applied to all public places, they’re meaningless. I don’t know why they are targeting movie theaters.”

Almost all respondents dismissed the initial regulation that film screenings could not exceed two hours in length as the most formalist of all. “If you’re going to get infected, you’ll be infected whether you’re in there for an hour or for two — the length of the film shouldn’t make a difference,” a respondent wrote. Authorities said Tuesday that the rule will be lifted starting Friday.

A few respondents pointed out an unexpected silver lining to the current ban on concessions: “An upside of requiring masks and banning food is that it reduces talking and the sound of crunching snacks!”

China’s cinemas closed across the country due to COVID-19 just before the Chinese new year holiday in late January.

Reflecting back on the past six months without access to films on the big screen, nearly half of the cinephiles interviewed used some combination of the words “depressed,” “frustrated,” “sad” and “regretful” to describe their state of mind.

“People who truly love movies were really suffocated,” one explained.

The pain was personal for movie fans, but also reflected a broader sorrow at what this meant for Chinese cinema as a whole. “I’ve felt frustration and sadness at how the past six months have dealt such a heavy blow to theaters and the film production industry. To put it bluntly, it’s kicked back the progress of China’s film industry by a year or even several years,” one wrote.

While some felt the extended closures were “necessary but cruel,” others felt the hardship could have very well been lessened. “It was necessary to keep them closed for the first two months, but then they could have reopened,” one said. Another echoed the sentiment: “Music [venues] have all gone back to business and it no longer matters if people are crowding in, but cinemas can’t do the same. It’s really hard to bear.”

The Shanghai International Film Festival managed to kick off just five days after the first wave of cinemas reopened. It sold a remarkable 107,789 tickets in 10 minutes and a total of 128,042 within the hour — a true sign of how much pent-up enthusiasm the young, cultured and urbane film festival-going crowd had harbored through quarantine.

Tickets were so in demand that a robust scalper’s market immediately cropped up, in which screenings sold for eye-watering sums up to 25 times their original $8.60-$11.50 (RMB60-80) price.

On the online secondhand marketplace Xianyu, tickets for a restored version of “Apocalypse Now” sold for $72 (RMB500) and $144 (RMB1000); screenings of Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” sold for $72 (RMB480); and tickets to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II” sold for an astounding $216 (RMB1500) a pop.

In sharp contrast, however, is the national box office’s lackluster performance. The $17.3 million earnings from the third weekend back in business actually marked a dip from the second weekend’s $17.6 nationwide tally.

Respondents explained the discrepancy. “We’ve all seen the older movies, and the new releases so far aren’t that highly rated,” one said.

Others pointed out that Chinese festival-goers are a uniquely passionate bunch who had been dying to hit the cinemas for months, whereas movies just aren’t that important to the average Chinese person. “Most ordinary audience members aren’t eager to return to theaters right now. Even if they do go, they won’t watch as many films as we do in a week,” a respondent said.

Nevertheless, now that theaters have at least re-opened again, it feels for most like there’s at least hope now that the industry can emerge from the dark months of the pandemic. The reigning metaphor of choice is that of a path forward.

“I’ve felt quite deeply though sorrowfully emotional about it. It’s this feeling like the road to success has been strewn with setbacks, yet we’ve finally returned to normal life,” one wrote.

Another exclaimed: “The future is bright, though the road is torturous! Hang in there.”

Wang Jinwei contributed to this report. 

Source: Variety