China closes cinemas, delays film premieres over coronavirus spread

Lunar New Year is usually one of the biggest box office periods in China. But this year, studios have postponed the premieres of at least seven movies and many theatres have closed due to an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus.

Theatres were poised to take in $1B over Chinese new year holiday week

Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan stars in Vanguard, a thriller that was due for release in Chinese theatres on Saturday. It's one of at least seven films that saw weekend premieres postponed because of concerns over an outbreak of a new coronavirus. (Bobby Yip/file photo/Reuters)

Chinese movie fans will have to catch the premiere of a much-anticipated new comedy online because many cinemas have closed in response to an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus.

Theatres have been shuttered across central Hubei province at the start of the week-long Lunar New Year holiday as part of the effort to curb the spread of the virus that has killed at least 25 people and sickened more than 800 others.

The Hong Kong-listed Huanxi Media Group announced on Friday an agreement with Beijing's Bytedance Network to show its new movie, Lost in Russia, on Bytedance's online platforms.

Bytedance, which owns the popular TikTok video-sharing app and the news app Jinri Toutiao, said given the efforts to reduce the risks of big gatherings, it had secured the deal to let fans watch Lost in Russia for free on its apps, starting Saturday.

China has stepped up efforts to contain the coronavirus, discouraging public gatherings across the country. Ten cities in Hubei province have suspended some public transportation over the outbreak, the Hubei Daily reported on Friday. 

Authorities have all but shut down Wuhan, a city of 10 million and a major transport hub, where the outbreak was first confirmed at the end of December.

The Lunar New Year holiday usually sees audiences flock to cinemas, with distributors taking advantage of the crowds to launch films, but the premieres of at least seven movies have been postponed, including four produced in China — among them, Vanguard, a thriller starring Jackie Chan.

Another big-budget film on hold for release is Detective Chinatown 3, the third instalment in the popular buddy action-comedy series from director Sicheng Chen.

Imax released a statement on Thursday to say it supports the decision to postpone the release of the slate of holiday films. "The safety of Chinese audiences is our top priority," the company said in a statement.

Variety reports the Chinese holiday had been expected to generate around $1 billion US in box office revenue. The Hollywood Reporter quoted distributors and exhibitors in Beijing as saying the decision to postpone the releases was made voluntarily by the major Chinese studios.

All movie theatres in Guangdong, a southern province with more than 110 million people, were ordered closed for the holiday, while many theatres in Beijing shut down after the city's culture and tourism bureau ordered mass events to be cancelled.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press