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The new coronavirus shut down the Chinese movie industry

Jasmine Garsd Mar 6, 2020
Two people wearing face masks work a promotional stand for the Disney movie "Mulan" in an almost empty shopping mall in Beijing. Greg Baker/AFP

The new coronavirus shut down the Chinese movie industry

Jasmine Garsd Mar 6, 2020
Two people wearing face masks work a promotional stand for the Disney movie "Mulan" in an almost empty shopping mall in Beijing. Greg Baker/AFP

With its star cast and storyline based on a Chinese legend, Disney’s live-action “Mulan” was supposed to make a big splash in that country. 

Then COVID-19 started spreading and shut down almost the entire movie industry in China. Theaters nationwide have been closed for months. The Chinese premiere for “Mulan” is on hold indefinitely, though it’s still set to debut later this month in the United States.

The impact of the virus on the film industry is being felt worldwide, from production of “Mission Impossible” being halted in Italy to the release of the new James Bond movie being postponed globally.

While it’s not clear how bad it will get, for Hollywood, China is a huge loss. “You can’t produce a major Hollywood film, a blockbuster film, without having the China market as part of your strategy,” said Stanley Rosen, who studies Chinese politics and society at the University of Southern California. “In many cases, like the ‘Fast and the Furious’ or ‘Transformers,’ the China market can be bigger.” 

Just last year, Chinese box office revenue was over $9 billion. The U.S. movie industry made more than $11 billion. 

Now, around 70,000 big screens in China have gone dark due to the epidemic. Some movies in China have hit streaming platforms instead of theaters. “Enter the Fat Dragon” and “Lost in Russia,” two Chinese comedies that were expected to do well at the box office, were set to premiere during the profitable Chinese Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day. Both went directly to streaming platforms instead.

Rosen said big-budget films won’t make as much money that way.

“For those kinds of films, streaming is not really a solution. But for smaller budget films, certainly streaming makes a lot of sense.”

Another big hit to Hollywood? The coronavirus has brought film production in China to a screeching halt.

“Hollywood has increasingly turned to China over recent years,” said Sky Canaves, a contributing editor at China Film Insider. There’s a cap on how many foreign films can be shown annually in China, but Hollywood teaming up with a Chinese studio can help get around that restriction. DreamWorks partnered with a Chinese production company to create material such as the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise. 

Aynne Kokas, author of the book “Hollywood Made in China,” said she’s looking out for how Chinese investments in the film industry could be affected.

“We’re seeing an increase in Chinese firms investing in Hollywood production,” she said. “Tencent and Alibaba both have film investment arms that are increasingly active in the U.S. market.” But Kokas expects to see Chinese government pressure investors to look inward. “After the pass of the coronavirus crisis, whenever that is, I think what we’ll see is a retrenchment of domestic investment in China.”

And if the virus lasts through the summer blockbuster season, there’s the risk that more American movies will get delayed. Producers of the Bond movie said they pushed back the release because the “global theatrical marketplace” was uncertain. 

American box office revenues are up so far this year, compared to 2019. Last month’s “Invisible Man” beat expectations. But that was before there were runs on hand sanitizer. Going to a movie theater was one of the first things Americans said they would give up if the virus spread to their community, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

Pixar’s “Onward,” the story of two adolescent elves, premiered Friday. Industry experts say whether people stay home this weekend, as the number of infected grow in Florida, California and Washington, will tell us a lot about where Hollywood is heading during the epidemic. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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