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China to Ease Limits on Movie Ticket Sales, Screening Length Starting This Weekend

Variety — Rebecca Davis

Cinemas in some parts of China have been told that they may now sell up to 50% of their available tickets for each screening and play films over two hours in length without restrictions starting from Aug. 14, local reports and leaked directives show.

Concessions may also now be sold — not to snack on in theaters, but, amusingly, as take-away.

The easing of theater restrictions is a big positive sign for the China box office prospects of Disney’s “Mulan,” which confirmed on Monday it would hit Chinese theaters “soon,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which is set to debut in the country on Sept. 4.

COVID-19 has dealt a blow to the global box office dreams of both films, with Disney choosing to forgo theatrical in most markets and release its live-action remake on its own streaming platform.

Chinese cinemas reopened for the first time in six months on July 20. Initial national guidelines required them to cap ticket sales at just 30% of their max capacity to allow for more extensive social distancing. They also banned the sale and consumption of concessions, and requested that screenings not go over two hours. Local authorities in some regions began asking cinemas to program a short intermission into longer films, but not others.

Now, the screening length issue appears to cleared up in time for the weekend debut of two hotly anticipated longer titles: a 3D, 4K restoration of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and the censored Chinese war epic “The Eight Hundred,” which both open Friday. “Bad Boys for Life” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, which runs at 123 minutes, is also set to premiere alongside them.

Giving cinemas the ability to sell up to half the available seats for each showing will be a welcome boon for exhibitors. Business has been “better than expected,” analysts say, but still slow as audiences appear to await more enticing offerings.

The most successful cinema in the country, a five-hall, 565-seat venue on Hainan island, sold 1,379 tickets worth $7,000 on Tuesday.

The images below show the seating availability for two different Imax theaters in Beijing last Saturday night for the opening weekend of “1917.” The red icons indicate seats already taken, while the grey, locked seats are those left empty for social distancing purposes. For a major title on the most popular weekend evening, the 30% capacity rule left most good seats occupied, leaving only options at the very front or side.

They include the 2017 U.S. historical drama “The Current War,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Thomas Edison and Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Tesla, which will arrive in China on Aug. 28. Co-produced by Harvey Weinstein and originally set for distribution by The Weinstein Company, the film’s release got caught up in Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal and did not debut until last fall. It’s made $12 million worldwide so far, with $6 million of that from North America.

Two Japanese titles are also preparing to hit cinemas. They are the 1999 Cannes competition title “Kikujiro” — written, directed and starring Takeshi Kitano — which has yet to set a date, and “Masquerade Hotel,” a 2019 crime film directed by Masayuki Suzuki that will premiere in China on Sept. 4.

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